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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major, op. 10 [15:27]
Nikolai Lugansky, piano
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, op. 100 [43:31]
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Rec. live Royal Albert Hall, London, 8 Sept 2003 (No. 1); 9 Aug 2003 (No. 5) DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61551-2 [59:08]

Prokofiev composed his First Piano Concerto while still in his early twenties as a vehicle for his own impressive abilities at the keyboard. Youthful, exuberant and full of flash, the opening motive strikes the listener with somewhat of a hammer blow, and does not relent for the entire fifteen minutes of the piece. Sadly underrepresented on the concert platform, this is a work of tremendous spark and enthusiasm and deserves more credit than the usual cursory dismissal as an immature showpiece.

Nikolai Lugansky never fails to impress and this live performance from the BBC Proms concerts of 2003 is no exception. The young Lugansky rips up the keyboard as if he were a reincarnation of the twenty-one year old composer that first presented this piece to the world. No stranger to lyricism either, Lugansky is able to create a fine cantabile when called upon.

Sadly, the sonics of this live recording leave a bit to be desired. The sound is boxy and distant and to these ears, recorded at too low a level to have any real presence. I found myself cranking up the volume far more often than is my custom to get the desired effect of being bowled over with sound. If you are a Lugansky fan (and I certainly am) then this is a performance for your collection, but for great sound, there are certainly better choices.

The Fifth Symphony, debuted in 1945 when bombs were still raining down on Russia, is perhaps the last of Prokofievís true masterworks. It was shortly after the first performance that the composer slipped in his apartment, striking his head, leaving him unconscious for nearly two days. His recovery was never really complete and the effects of the concussion affected his work for the rest of his life. He was, for example, never to conduct a symphony orchestra again after the accident.

At a time when composers had to be ultra careful not to offend the Stalinist regime with excesses, Prokofiev takes a hint from Shostakovich. In the Fifth Symphony he writes a work that suits all the demands of the apparatchik but at the same time comes off as strikingly original.

Opening with more sweeping gestures than the traditional allegro, Prokofiev achieves his dramatic intent through harmony and orchestration rather than stirring rhythmic devices. The scherzo, with its macabre melodic and harmonic shifts is colorful in its clever orchestration. The haunting adagio, whose melody is played over the pulsing accompaniment so favored by the composer, leads to a jolly finale, the main theme of which hints at the opening melody of the first movement.

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain acquit themselves rather well with this difficult score. If there be complaints, they lie in the tendency of the brass to over-blow a bit, and in general, intonation, particularly in the winds could be more spot-on. However, for an orchestra of youngsters, not yet seasoned in such complicated repertoire, this is indeed a worthy performance. Yan Pascal Tortelier coaxes an excellent balance from his sections, lyrical moments are beautifully spun out and there is a fine rhythmic precision throughout.

To summarize, this disc is a document of what must have been a very impressive live concert, and if you were there, you might want the memento. Although the performances are on the whole fine, I am not certain that they live up to an international standard. A hedged recommendation, then, for this performance.

Kevin Sutton

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