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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Five Piano Concertos

Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat major Op.10 (1911-12) [15.29]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.16 (1913 revised 1923) [31.34]
Piano Concerto No.3 in C major Op.26 (1917-21) [27.17]
Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat major for the left hand Op.53 (1931) [23.12]
Piano Concerto No.5 in G major Op.55 (1932) [22.57]
Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano)
The Monnaie Symphony Orchestra/Kazushi Ono
Recorded live in the Palace of Fine Arts, Brussels, 24-26 September 2004
FUGA LIBERA FUG 505 [54.28 + 66.08]

Complete sets of the five concertos are not that common. True, there are some stellar names – Ashkenazy/Previn, Boris Berman/Järvi, Demidenko/Lazarev, Toradze/Gergiev and Postnikova/Rozhdestvensky amongst them, but pianists generally have their strengths - and weaknesses - in this body of work and choose accordingly. But Abdel Rahman El Bacha steps in boldly, seconded by Pappano’s successor at the Monnaie, Kazushi Ono, to give us not only an integral set but a live one at that.

El Bacha is an eloquent exponent of the repertoire and a technically accomplished one. He has recorded Prokofiev before, taping a series of early works in the early 1980s that won him prizes, though he may be internationally more noted for his extensive Chopin series of performances and recordings. Recorded over a very short period – there may have been patching sessions but one can’t be sure from the documentation – this is still a fearless commitment and one that reflects well on the musicians. There are some bass-heavy levels throughout that tends to darken the syntax somewhat. In the First Concerto this contributes to a feeling that the rising figuration of the first movement isn’t exultant enough, added to which the percussion can sound dulled in the acoustic of the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels. As a result the performance never really gets out of the blocks in the way that the Argerich/Dutoit does or the Richter/Ančerl. El Bacha and Ono take a quite direct and steely view of the second movement and string weight tends to be light, with the finale not as effervescent as some, though there’s a gimlet precision that I quite like.

The Second Concerto opens here with forthright introspection but conveys the dramatic flourishes with some considerable panache; in the Intermezzo the decorative roulades are pinpoint, though a little submerged, though the ensuing heavy brass bring out the accumulations of drama well. The Third is once more fluent and articulate. The Theme and Variations second movement goes at a good jog trot tempo (though it’s even so a minute slower than Prokofiev’s recording with the LSO). Detailing is not quite precise enough however or as etched as it could be – rhythms tend to be smoothed out somewhat, though the winds are vibrant. Certainly it’s relatively conventional next to the expressly Gallic sound world conjured up in Joyce Hatto’s recent recording for Concert Artist. The Fourth, for the Left Hand, is notable not simply for El Bacha’s digital facility (undoubted) but for the vein of melancholy he explores in the Andante; this is one of the high points of the set, and he proves impressively capable of meeting the considerable demands without flurry, smudging or over pedalling. The Fifth is a wonderfully puckish work that reveals that El Bacha and Ono are alert to its saucy mordancy (in the Moderato ben accentuato) as they are to its deeper expressivity in the Larghetto. It’s a difficult work to make cohere and if, in the final result, certain recording characteristics tend to militate against an outright recommendation then this is still a fine achievement.

Of course individual allegiances still adhere for me; Richter in the First and Fifth; Anda in the Second; Prokofiev, Kapell and Argerich (not everyone’s choice but I like her here) in the Third and Berman and Janis in the Fourth. For a general recommendation for a collection of all five you could try one of the titans noted above but El Bacha’s is an accomplished set, one to be admired.

Jonathan Woolf

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