This disc of under an hour's music is, believe it or not, the sum total of Prokofiev's commercial recording as a pianist (although there are some piano rolls). This will come as a surprise to some bearing in mind that Prokofiev was a famous composer/pianist who lived on to the nineteen-fifties. Naxos has scored a first by collecting all these recordings on to one disc although EMI ran very close six years ago with a CD that included Glazunov's The Seasons.
Prokofiev was a very considerable pianist in his own right and recordings of him playing music other than his own would be of historical interest but a disc of him playing his own works is clearly an important authoritative aural document. It is a little unfortunate that the solo piano pieces here are a bit of an extracts hotch-potch, all of them being taken from larger sets. This throws the focus firmly on the Third Piano Concerto as the only complete work, the performance of which invites comparison with later recordings by several distinguished virtuosi.
During his years as a student at the St Petersburg
Conservatory Prokofiev gained a reputation as a musical enfant térrible
with a youthful propensity to shock both as composer and player.
The First Concerto was written there and Prokofiev's performance
of it in 1912 caused a rumpus and much critical condemnation. Such a
reception would have driven Prokofiev's compatriot Rachmaninov to pangs
of self doubt and even nervous breakdown. Not so Prokofiev. It only
encouraged him. The next year he unveiled his Second Concerto which
led one Russian critic to claim that those present were "frozen
with fright, hair standing on end". By the time of the first performance
of the Third Concerto in Chicago nearly ten years later, Prokofiev's
music was more accepted and his playing of it much admired, one American
critic describing "fingers of steel … biceps and ... triceps of
steel." Other descriptions of his playing used words such as warmth,
poetry, forcefulness, subtlety and fluency.
In 1932 Prokofiev recorded the Third Piano Concerto in London at the Abbey Road studios for HMV. The orchestra was the LSO under the Italian Piero Coppola although two months earlier Prokofiev had played it at the Queens Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood who was under contract to Columbia.
The Third Concerto is the most popular of the five piano concertos and in spite of its ostentatiously virtuosic solo part, the piano is woven into the musical texture in a way that make it one of Prokofiev's more satisfying and integrated works. Since 1932 some great players have been tempted to record it and there have been some distinguished results. The first one of real note was not until 1949 when William Kapell recorded it under Antal Dorati. Significantly, what was admired about the piano playing in this performance was described in similar terms to those of Prokofiev's own playing. In a work demanding panache and virtuosity, a performance to make your "hair stand on end", then we are clearly in Martha Argerich territory and her 1967 recording is of benchmark status. But in a work where the orchestra is very much a partner, the electric combination of Ashkenazy and Previn in their 1975 recording with the LPO make it many people's favourite. By the time we get to 1993, recording quality is making the most of the virtues of the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado (the same team that accompanied Argerich 26 years earlier) in an outstanding performance with Evgeny Kissin, although some thought it could do with a little more soul. This is provided in Michel Béroff's 1974 Leipzig disc with Masur. Horacio Gutiérrez, something of a war-horse concerto specialist, offered a good example of a performance from the modern school of virtuoso ivory hammering in 1990. There is fine playing from the accompanying Concertgebouw under Järvi and Gutiérrez can certainly excite but he finds it difficult to play really quietly when required and so many subtleties are lost.
Prokofiev stands up to this formidable opposition very well. His playing has a subtlety of phrasing and dynamic gradation that is lacking from many otherwise spectacular performances. The virtuoso aspect of his playing is not in the powerhouse mould of the likes of those mentioned above but he generates excitement through clean percussiveness, dynamic contrast and sometimes sheer speed. His last movement is quicker than most and for excitement can compare with any. The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra cannot compete with the clinical perfection and voluptuousness of Abbado's Berlin Philharmonic performances but there is a spontaneity that comes across in a work that must have been new to the players. A frisson is generated at times by the orchestra sounding as if it is trying to catch Prokofiev and at other times vice versa, giving the performance a flying by the seat of the pants feel to it, something which the 1932 recording manages to pick up. The recording also avoids the pitfall of an over-obtrusive piano - soloist and orchestra are well integrated.
Incidentally, there is some film extant of Prokofiev playing the concerto in 1927 - silently! The BBC showed a clip during their TV transmission of Martha Argerich's performance at a Promenade Concert this year. What a shame it cannot be incorporated on this disc in CD ROM form. Something for the future no doubt.
In the solo piano pieces the no-nonsense, clear-cut side of Prokofiev's playing is much in evidence. It is partly achieved by a relatively sparing use of pedal, a technique that aids percussiveness in rhythmic passages and is reminiscent of Horowitz. The most familiar piece to many will be the piano version of the second movement Gavotte from the Classical Symphony and the combination of pointed rhythm, poise and ever so subtle rubato results in a rendering that is rarely matched in performances of the Symphony.
Jonathan Woolf has also listened to this recording:
Prokofiev's complete commercial disc recordings last 56 minutes (he also made some fourteen Duo Art Reproducing Piano Rolls in about 1920). It is a small but a remarkable legacy revealing of both performance practice and of the idiosyncrasies and intentions of Prokofiev's playing.
As with most composer-performer performances Prokofiev's playing of the Third Concerto is unmannered, clear-sighted and brisk. Momentum is properly maintained, sonorities are integrated - it is remarkable how the piano is part of the orchestral tableau - and lyricism is tempered by considerations of architectural design. Prokofiev characteristically never brings the visceral excitement of, say, Kapell whose galvanizing recording is for many the benchmark performance of the work. But what he does bring is far more rewarding - myriad inflective devices and pianistic subtleties which have always marked out this performance as a document of unending fascination.
The 1935 Paris solo recordings are increasingly rare in their original form, an album of four 78s. As much as in the 1932 Concerto recording we hear Prokofiev's remarkable rhythmic attack, his melodic accents, discreet use of the pedal and everywhere his wit - the performance of the Classical Symphony's Gavotte is an especially treasurable example. The andante from the Op 29 Sonata is probably the most important piece recorded in this set - and it shows accelerating tempi as remarkable in its way as his implacable control.
These indispensable recordings have been transferred before, of course. The Concerto is on Dutton CDBP9706 coupled with Koussevitsky's recording of the Fifth Symphony; on Pearl 9470 is a Prokofiev plays Prokofiev set transferred, as on this Naxos disc, by Mark Obert-Thorn. The Naxos disc is excellently done however and at this price it is, frankly, an irresistible bargain.