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The Five Piano Concertos
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
CD 1 [68'49]
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1911-2) [16'44]
Piano Concerto No. 4 (1931) [27'29]
Piano Concerto No. 5 (1932) [24'36]
CD 2 [68'22]
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1913, rev. 1923) [37'38]
Piano Concerto No. 3 (1916-21) [30'44]
Oleg Marshev (piano.)
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Niklas Willén
Musikhuset, Sønderborg, Denmark, 30 July - 10 August 2001. DDD
DANACORD DACOCD 584/5 [68:49 + 68:22]

This Danacord set is in fact anything but "new"; it was recorded in 2001, over four years ago! According to Jesper Buhl, the company's founder and seemingly indefatigable M.D., this unusually long delay was due to the recording engineer falling ill during the sessions. In the world of the small, independent record company, such a seemingly mundane eventuality tends to behave like a snowball on an alpine slope. A replacement engineer had to be found, and the remaining sessions re-scheduled for a date when the various personnel and the hired venue were all available. The snowball rumbled on. The replacement engineer didn't know the original microphone layout and, of course, his equipment was in any event completely different. Thus, it was a major job even to approximate the sound of the original sessions. Broadly speaking, the upshot was a "recording" comprising a mixture of two differently-balanced, partial sets of masters.

The snowball rumbled on! To produce a final master now involved not one, but two extra factors. Firstly, there were three busy people - two independent, freelance engineers and the producer, who was also Danacord's M.D! - to bring together on as many occasions as necessary. Secondly, specialised equipment was needed to "weld" the disparate sources. There is plenty of this equipment about, but as it tends to reside in big broadcasting houses or permanent studios, where it is in almost constant use, finding a slot was another major headache. As Jesper said, "Before you know [it], four years have passed away." Amen to that. Was it worth the effort? That's what we're here to find out.

Feeling certain twinges of sympathy with my colleague John France, who has also reviewed this recording, I echo his implicit "dismay" at the numbers of alternative recordings of this repertoire. As John implies, if you want the "best" of each, you have to pick and choose your way through a heaving morasse of alternatives, and - unless money is no object ‑ be prepared for heaps of overlap and excess baggage. On the other hand, if you're content to trade having the "best" recording and performance of each individual concerto for the "best" all-round recorded cycle, then the job's a bit less messy.

Consequently, like John, over the years I too have "largely stuck with" Decca's Ashkenazy/LSO/Previn set. Ever since its first release, way back in the Dark Ages B.C.D. (before compact disc), reviewers have time and again seen fit to hail it as the best all-rounder - and with substantial justification. Hence, this set can fairly be said to have stood the fabled "test of time". Therefore, it would seem eminently sensible to press it into service as a benchmark. So, I'm going to be quite contrary, and start by looking at another recording entirely ‑ and moreover a recording of just the First Concerto.

I've had the Katz/LPO/Boult recording in my collection for nearly 40 years, firstly as a Pye Golden Guinea LP and latterly as a PRT CD (PVCD8376) whose almost irredeemably grotty presentation is more than compensated by Michael J. Dutton's utterly exquisite digital re-mastering. The recording itself is currently available on Cembal d'Amour CD109 (see Jonathan Woolf's review). Even allowing for the unavoidable feeling of cosy familiarity with an old friend, to me this recording of the Prokofiev still sounds just about as good as it can get. For its age (1959), the sound is lovely, full-blooded yet clear enough, and commendably stereophonic. More importantly, the performers rarely put even a toe wrong, and here I'm talking not of mere technicalities, but of the spirit in which Prokofiev's outrageous music is represented.

The opening brass chords rasp fit to take the skin off your aural knuckles, their corpulent consonance cracking wide open the ambivalence of the subsequent skipping theme. Veering vertiginously between childlike playfulness and adult inebriation, this sets the tone of the whole performance. Every episode crackles with its own distinctive character, yet each yields to its successor with almost organic inevitability. For example, Katz catches the vodka-soaked lurching of the passage following the concerto's slow core as near as dammit to perfection, whilst Boult's stage-management of the build-up to the final flourish, with its sizzling syncopated episode, is hair-raising.

However, it's that "slow core" which is most captivating. Like Mahler's infamous "allegro energico, ma non troppo" (Sixth Symphony, first movement), Prokofiev's "andante assai" is, to say the least, an ambiguous marking. "Andante" means "slowish, but not slow", or "walking pace", so what modification is implied by the "assai"? Is it slower than walking pace, or faster? Quite properly, to my mind, Katz and Boult shelve the assai altogether and opt for a straight andante. At this pace, playing with delicacy and circumspection, and studiously avoiding any exaggerated expression, they find in the movement a feeling of slightly tainted innocence that mirrors the naïve roguishness of the outer sections.

If we turn to the "benchmark" Ashkenazy/LSO/Previn recording, there are of course very many good things to savour, but they come mostly courtesy of the LSO and Previn, who create some delicious sounds. The Decca recording is both richer and more detailed, but the flow is disrupted by some over-interpretation - for instance, the "mysterious" episode ‑ without any obvious rhyme or reason - at one point grinds to a complete halt. Moreover, Ashkenazy's piano is too far forward, tending to predominate even where it is quite evidently supposed to be accompanying.

Compared to Katz, Ashkenazy somehow seems a bit po-faced and aggressive, lacking that essential degree of playfulness whilst, compared to Boult, Previn makes the orchestral sound feel rather too civilised for such wickedly mischievous music. Those opening chords again set the tone. Although they are better balanced, with more body in the strings, that sassy brass rasp is sadly missing. Then again, Ashkenazy has under-dosed on the vodka, and the acceleration towards the final climax is overdone, so that the syncopations sound "gabbled". Although their Andante Assai is only marginally slower, Ashkenazy declines to deliver the legato that the music demands, and his climax is redolent not so much of dewy-eyed youth as of care-worn middle-age.

At this point it's only fair to ask, why has the Decca set ruled the roost for so long? The obvious reason is that Previn and Ashkenazy are individually superlative interpreters of Prokofiev, but I think there's a bit more to it than that. I can remember the first time I saw Ashkenazy in the flesh, at the very first symphony concert I attended. As he took a bow alongside Barbirolli, I was struck by his diminutive stature - I can say this with impunity, being no great shakes at the high jump myself - but still more so by the sheer power of his playing of the Emperor Concerto, the recoil frequently forcing his bum clear of the piano stool. Later, as a student, I saw him again, playing the Beethoven Fourth. The start of his cadenza nearly lifted the roof of Newcastle City Hall! Of course Ashkenazy can also play with the utmost delicacy but, somehow, when he does there's always this feeling of an iron fist clad in a velvet glove.

Sadly, the only time I've ever seen Previn in the flesh, he was not performing, but being interviewed. So, to judge his qualities as a conductor, I can only go by his recordings and broadcast performances. They are impressive enough. To an uncommon degree he combines those two old incompatibles, dramatic flair and structural sense, which rapidly became evident during his love affair with English music ‑ especially Walton and Vaughan Williams. His recording of Prokofiev's complete Romeo and Juliet ballet seemed to suffer by comparison with the Cleveland/Maazel recording, which happened along at practically the same time. Yet, to this day his version remains one of my favourite records, precisely on account of those virtues, compounded by a supple, elastic approach to tempo, and a willingness, even eagerness, to put the lyrical on an equal footing with the rhythmical.

Thus, it seems to me, the secret of this set's success is that Previn regards Prokofiev as primarily a "Romantic", whilst Ashkenazy, contrariwise, treats him more as an out-and-out "Modernist". These effectively conflicting viewpoints, coming from two powerful musical personalities, infuse their joint performances of these concertos with a certain extra electrical tension. It's a bit of a shame, then, that the recording tends to pull the rug out from under their collective feet. Make no mistake - in most respects the recording is superb, as rich as Christmas pud, at times positively luxuriant. The trouble is that, much of the time, the piano is too far forward, tipping the balance too much in favour of Ashkenazy. It's true that there are places where Previn's LSO produces some awe-inspiring power, but these are often places where the piano is silent, or buried in its own bass. Turn to the quiet passages, where the piano is supposed to be whispering, and that undue prominence seems to fray the edges of the velvet gloves.

Step forward the Young Pretenders! What do they have to offer? Well, first let's complete the trio of First Concertos. Willén restores the brazen, but sadly not the rasping, quality of those tone-setting chords, whilst Marshev's chirpy piano slots into the ensemble like the leader of the pack. Out on his own, following the opening peroration, Marshev is - perhaps surprisingly - the slowest of the three. Nevertheless he is also, by some margin, the most beguilingly playful. At his tempo, he gives himself elbow room sufficient to explore every cunning little twist in the thematic tale - this really sparkles!

Like Katz and Boult, Marshev and Willén don't faff about with their "andante assai" - only they go straight for the assai's jugular, and adopt a diametrically opposite "at snail's pace", playing very sweetly and sensitively, but also oh-so-languorously. Granted, it is gob-smackingly beautiful, but it is also seductive, indulgent and too self-aware, as though the naughty child of the outer sections had temporarily grown up. Although they avoid the Decca team's ponderousness, their climax is nonetheless grandiose and sweeping, making the movement sound more like ripe Rachmaninov than pubescent Prokofiev.

Still, in the deliciously vivacious outer sections Marshev is much nearer to Katz than to Ashkenazy: Marshev simply oozes whimsical impudence. For example, take the point where Ashkenazy ground to a halt. Marshev does indeed slow right down, but with him there is nothing arbitrary about it. At the same time his playing acquires an improvisatory feel then, at the ensuing presto, although he's not the quickest he gives every impression of taking off like some small boy caught snitching apples. Similarly, Willén is much nearer to Boult than to Previn. If he sometimes doesn't quite hit the nail on the head, he does know exactly when to tuck his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Whilst this newcomer leaves my affection for Katz and Boult, like 007's Martini, shaken but not stirred, it nevertheless manages to knock the formidable Ashkenazy and Previn into a comparative cocked hat. Admittedly, we lose the frisson generated by Ashkenazy's and Previn's disparate attitudes, a special quality that will keep their set always close to our hearts. However, by sailing closer to my First Concerto first choice, to my ears at least Marshev and Willén already show considerable mettle.

Marshev is still, unaccountably, relatively little-known; at least in the UK! Yet, as has been observed in numerous reviews within these web pages, he is not only a supremely talented pianist but also a musician who thinks long and hard about what his fingers should be doing. This is not to imply that his performances sound in any way dull and deliberate - quite the contrary: once his fingers get going, the music seems to flow right off the cuff. In these concertos, he seems to seek the golden mean between the Romantic lyricism of Previn and the pungent aggression of Ashkenazy. That's the "deliberation" bit. However, Marshev recognises that the enfant terrible of the First Concerto, a bit like Peter Pan, does not entirely grow up. Right through the cycle he can be heard "spontaneously" seasoning the music with twinkles of boyish mischief.

Willén's is a name with which I'm not over-familiar. In fact, to be ruthlessly honest, before this set dropped though my letter-box he'd never particularly impinged on my consciousness. Yet, as you can see if you look at this page of the Hyperion web-site, he's been around a bit. Then, when I noticed the CD booklet's mention of a recording of Alfvén's First Symphony he had made for Naxos, the penny dropped - I do indeed have that very disc on my shelf! Willén is a superbly sympathetic partner, coaxing from the SJSO mischief to match Marshev at his cheekiest, proving the equal of Previn when it comes to the lyrical line, and adept at teasing out telling orchestral stones that many others leave unturned. It seems to me unlikely that either the SJSO is incapable of erecting massive walls of sound such as do the LSO for Previn, or that the Danacord engineer(s!) are incapable of capturing them - the often imposing solidity of the bass drum proves that point. Hence, the generally relatively slender sound is a matter of choice on the part of the conductor, all part and parcel of their view of Prokofiev as a composer who is both lithe and light on his feet.

To exemplify, let's first look at the Second Concerto, which stands apart from the other four in its almost entirely pervasive, red-eyed rage. The opportunities for displays of motoric modernity offered by the music are right up Ashkenazy's street. Small wonder, then, that Ashkenazy gives a fair impression of "The Terminator" - it matters not which model! - in his relentless pursuit of the towering, glowering first-movement cadenza. This is something that Marshev doesn't match, any more than, in the dénouement, Willén and the SJSO match Previn and the LSO in the way the crushingly baleful orchestra seems not merely to enter, but to be sucked into the fray. However, it is not that Marshev cannot match Ashkenazy, part of whose power is due to the prominence given to the piano by the recording. It is simply that Marshev's view is more balanced, finding more poetry and swagger at the start, and finer poignancy at the conclusion. Neither does the SJSO lack sheer brute force: Willén goes on to generate a devastating conclusion to that climax.

This overwhelming episode is symptomatic of the Decca performance as a whole, from the measured deliberation of the opening, through the unwavering pianistic perpetuum mobile of the second movement, the third's clockwork "todtentanz" which Previn launches with "chasmic" power, and the pungently propulsive finale. Contrariwise, Marshev throughout finds more poetry in the music, which after all incorporates an expression of not just anger at, but also grief over the wasteful loss of his friend Maximilian Schmidthof. In the second movement, Marshev's attention to subtle accents gradually begins to tell, as does Willén's habit of teasing out orchestral detail. Again, whilst they make the third movement, comparatively, a funeral march, they replace the Decca team's drive and aggression by grimly sardonic, mordant humour.

Ashkenazy and Previn can be said to take a "traditional" viewpoint: by stressing the mechanistically aggressive, they make the music massively imposing, melodramatic and physically stimulating. Marshev and Willén, their far more pliant perspective drawing out many more of the threads of romance that Prokofiev weaves into his textures, offer a more measured view of the composer's soul - and, moreover, one that is less likely, albeit only marginally, to give grannie an attack of the vapours.

In the sterner passages of the Third Concerto, Marshev again lacks the sheer brute force of Ashkenazy, but more than compensates with a finer sense of mystery and playfulness. Much as Previn elicits from the LSO a warm, airy, "balletic" range of expression, his sound is perhaps a bit too sanitary for Prokofiev's acoustical jungle ‑ Willén's SJSO sounds leaner and more fitted to the purpose. Danacord's recording again blends the protagonists rather better - at least, unlike Ashkenazy's, Marshev's piano stays in one place throughout! This tendency of Ashkenazy's piano to "move forwards" is particularly obtrusive in the finale's lyrical episode, where the piano "accompaniment" consistently threatens to drown Previn's sensitively-drawn orchestral line. I suspect that this is not so much down to Ashkenazy, who is perfectly capable of playing delicately, as it is to some "fader-fiddler" in the control-room.

Prokofiev starts his second movement in very much a Classical vein, so it would seem reasonable for the soloist to enter at the tempo established by the orchestral exposition. Marshev does just that, and it sounds so right. Ashkenazy doesn't - he slows it down! ‑ and it sounds wrong; at least, it does now! Thereafter, although everyone keenly captures the characters of the variations, it is Marshev, less driven in the "driven" variation, who carries the "Classical" feel right through the movement. Yet, and as if to underline my comment in the previous paragraph, it is Ashkenazy who most effectively provides a quality of disembodiment in the "impressionistic" variation. Like Ashkenazy and Previn, Marshev and Willén start the finale at snail's pace. However, the latter opt, not for a gradual increase of pace, but a relatively sudden "take off", whereby they seem to release more "bounce". In the central episode, the SJSO may not be as fine-spun silken as the LSO, but their playing is more dolce, and even more heartfelt. In Marshev's hands the reprise is not so propulsive. It is less visceral, but Marshev puts the elbow-room to good use, being the more effervescent. For all his hair-raising articulation, especially of that blood-curdling cycle of dovetailed chords, Ashkenazy rather dashes off the coda. Sadly, that comment is not a prelude to a Marshev "coup": those fiendishly difficult dovetailed chords are not so well brought off, and somehow the "tune" gets a bit lost behind all the rhythmic figurations.

The Fourth Concerto must surely rank alongside Ravel's D Minor, as arguably the finest commissioned by the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein. I can remember arguing with the late, lamented Adrian Smith about "left hand only" piano concertos. Adrian agreed that it was, of course, right and proper that a one-armed pianist should have one-handed music to play. However, performances of that same music by two-armed pianists with, effectively, one hand tied behind their backs he regarded as ridiculous displays of virtuoso vanity. As he could play the piano and I can't, I found that hard to counter. In any event, I have to admit that it does seem to make sense: redistributing the notes between two hands will render the music easier to play, and hence will "free up" the player to concentrate better on his or her interpretation. It's a thought, isn't it? Moreover, it provokes another thought: when we hear a CD of such a work, we don't actually know how many hands the player is using.

In his detailed, eleven-page booklet note, Daniel Jaffé gives a lucid explanation of Prokofiev's compositional strategy. I would quibble with his description of Ravel's concerto as a "brilliant show piece [sic]" - the Ravel is almost always described as "dark-hued" or "sombre", though this has nothing to do with any technical limitations, and everything to do with what Ravel was trying to express in his music. Prokofiev, on the other hand, modifies his instrumentation for purely technical reasons: he both darkens his orchestral palette and slims down the orchestra's size, to compensate for the piano's perceived handicap.

Ashkenazy and Previn make a splendid start, Ashkenazy positively sizzling over the keyboard, and Previn splashing PLJ (lemon juice) over the basically "peaches and cream" orchestral sound. The good, clean recording, relatively well-integrated, captures the crisp sparkle of the incisive higher notes without sacrificing the deep "boom" of the bottom. Yet, the whimsical Marshev is still more magically mercurial, defter and lighter of touch, with Willén's orchestra sympathetically less fulsome. Marshev's piano lacks the bass solidity of Ashkenazy's, although this is not down to the recording because the thudding of the SJSO bass drum has all the subterranean substance your bottom could desire.

The Danacord team manage to stretch the second movement to some 13 minutes, fully four minutes or, to put it even more dramatically, around 45% longer than the Decca timing! This is an alarming difference, especially when you consider that the movement is marked "andante", plain and simple, with not even the excuse of a water-muddying "assai" to hide behind. By rights, it should sound dreadful - but it doesn't, far from it. Marshev and Willén do a magnificent job of conspiring to control the contours of the movement (and so they jolly well should, seeing as it was their fault that it was so stretched out in the first place). Delicacy is rife, lending comparative power to the moments of greater amplitude and revealing certain acidic elements ‑ including a dissonant pang near the end ‑ that eluded the more lustrous Decca team. Wisely, Marshev resists any temptation to stress the bass notes on the bar-lines, thus avoiding the lumps that Ashkenazy, sadly, puts back into Previn's carefully-stirred custard. Tender, nostalgic and thoughtful, Marshev's performance is thoroughly absorbing and convincing in itself ‑ but that doesn't explain why it has to be so damnably slow.

The third movement is one of those that brings home how beautifully rounded is the tone of Ashkenazy's piano. He plays most charmingly, demarcating the shifting moods through a nigh-on perfect balance between sweet and bitter combined with some suitably subtle variations of tempo. As ever, Previn's LSO is smooth, full-toned, colourful and - of course - too far back. Marshev's piano is lighter and a tad harder of tone, but is well-suited to his delicately crystalline approach. Although their timing is almost identical, Marshev and his cohorts use wider extremes of tempo to impart a greater sense of playfulness though, I should add, sometimes these "kiddies" play rough. Marshev's deftness is complemented by Willén, who capitalises on the SJSO's more slender sound to neatly delineate the sweet/bitter quality of Prokofiev's music.

The concerto's finale isn't, not really - effectively picking up where the first movement left off, it's more of a nifty little postlude. In the first movement's concluding brass chord Previn had ferreted out a strange, elusive quality that seemed to leave the music up in the air, and this (of course) makes perfect sense when you hear their finale, which to my ears sounds to set off at the precise same tempo. The Danacord lads don't quite match this trick: perhaps surprisingly, their brass chord is slightly less clean, that elusive quality eluding them, and their finale "picks up" at a slightly faster tempo. Purely in terms of playing there is little to choose between the two, but fluffing that crucial connection has to cost Marshev and Willén something in the region of half a brownie-point. In case you're wondering: at no time did I become suspicious that either Ashkenazy or Marshev was making sneaky use of any otherwise idle digits!

Daniel Jaffé suggests that the underlying tenor of the Fifth Concerto was prompted by, of all things, a boxing match. Yet, the very opening of the concerto seems to be haunted by the shade of the yet-unborn Cinderella ballet. Maybe, then, the slapstick antics of the Ugly Sisters shared the same inspiration, who knows? The Decca lads are on top form - their sound is superb, full, with supremely ripe brass and a tuba that would have given Hoffnung an orgasm, yet glittering and incisive. Moreover, the soloist and orchestra for once seem to be pretty fairly balanced! Ashkenazy flits through the first movement like quicksilver, and renders the runs in the second as showers of burning ice. Appropriately, he pulls no punches in the third, ripping into the music with a fleet fury that is reflected in the electrifying orchestral playing. Contrariwise, in the fourth movement he renders the cascades of notes with shimmering delicacy whilst Previn finds a hint of Copland in the orchestral texture. Their relentless drive through the first part of the finale is moderated by bounteous sparkle  ... need I say more?

Well, the Danacord sound is much less ample and "in yer face", but Marshev and Willén find, if not more light, then certainly more shade ‑ the first movement's central "dreamscape" is slower, quieter, and more introspective. In the second they are far more capricious and tongue-in-cheek - Marshev even finds a little "rock 'n' roll" in the quick variation, and by initially underplaying those runs comes out the more electrifying when he does cut loose. In the third movement, they are just as fast and furious, but (dare I say?) more lightweight, more attuned to Prokofiev's toccata marking, more poised and playful. Marshev, by keeping things simple and avoiding Ashkenazy's over-emphasis of the bar-lines, makes the fourth movement's melody sound less four-square, more fluid. With Marshev, for once, yielding absolutely nothing to Ashkenazy in terms of sheer muscle, the Danacord forces mould the mighty climax with practically peerless insight, accentuating the soft core and subsequently carving a terrifyingly terraced crescendo.

To cap it all, they make the finale sound like almost a different piece of music! Marshev is more flexible, in terms of both tempo and dynamics, and he and Willén elicit melodious moments that evaded the attention of Ashkenazy and Previn. The conclusion is remarkable: it sets off "in modo Percy Grainger strolling humlet" ‑ jaunty, jolly, brolly-swinging stuff. Then they accelerate, but unlike Ashkenazy's and Previn's headlong build-up, Marshev and Willén stand back and remain internally flexible, you could say "ducking and weaving" until, seeing their opening, they strike like lightning to deliver a mighty knock-out punch. This on its own is almost worth the asking price!

I must give full marks to the magnificent efforts of Danacord's production "team", whose recording shows no obvious signs of its troubled birth. I did keep a "weather ear" on it, and if there is any perceptible inconsistency, I give it a big tick for ducking completely under my guard. What the recording does reveal is the mesmerising array of orchestral details that Willén pulls out of Prokofiev's top hat. Inevitably, this fine resolution comes at a small cost: the sound, whilst nowhere near boxed in and desiccated, is just a little on the close and "dry" side, but very pleasant on the ear withal. Most importantly, this Danacord set offers fresh, original views of what had seemed to be repertoire so well-trodden that it was ripe for a preservation order. Once upon a time, if I had been exiled to that legendary desert island, the Decca set would have gone with me. Now . . . well, I'm not so sure!

Paul Serotsky

See also August 2005 review from John France



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