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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
CD 1 [72:03]
Piano concerto No.1 in D flat Op.10 (1910-11) [14:25]
Piano concerto No.2 in G minor Op.16 (1913 rev. 1923) [29:17]
Piano concerto No.3 in C major Op.26 (1917-21) [27:48]
CD 2 [75:56]
Piano concerto No.4 in B flat for the left hand Op.53 (1931) [23:46]
Piano concerto No.5 in G Op.55 (1931-2) [22:13]
Overture on Jewish Themes Op.34 for string quartet, piano and clarinet (1919) [8:38]
Visions fugitives Op.22 for piano (1915) [20:26]
Michel Béroff (piano)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/ Kurt Masur
Michel Portal (clarinet); Parrenin Quartet
rec. Leipzig, 1974, 1981. ADD/DDD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 5176292 [72:03 + 75:56]
Experience Classicsonline

This 2-CD set is essential for anyone who wants to understand a crucial aspect of 20th century music but it also offers far more. Russian music from Stravinsky’s early ballets to Schnittke and beyond to countries formerly in the USSR is large in output and mainly great in quality. Given that we all know snatches of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as well as contemporaries who lived elsewhere, I suggest that re-calibrating our perceptions is due about now and this should be done without the political fog so often mentioned.
 
EMI’s Gemini re-release of the piano concertos by Béroff with the Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur covers Prokofiev’s career and musical language at keyboard and orchestra level. It’s a key to his other massive achievements – not least his ‘protection’ of Shostakovich in the dangerous years. The irony of Stalin and Prokofiev dying on the same day in 1953 would never be believed in fiction but should be remembered.
 
Prokofiev was born into relatively secure circumstances in the northern Ukraine and following the early death of his father attended music school on merit. He was not the ‘patrician’ figure suggested by some writers. He was a prodigy in the way that Mozart and Britten were prodigies but still had to ‘rough it’. Like Shostakovich he played piano in various dives and early cinemas in St Petersburg and Moscow and needed to do this to pay his way.
 
Urban life clearly excited young Sergei and the rather edgy, ‘modernistic’ sound we associate with him probably dates back to the heady years of his twenties. This was at a time when Russia’s industrial conditions were rather like those of the UK a century earlier. Imported machines and labour-intensive practices – hence the ‘proletariat’ – were the order of the day.
 
Max Harrison’s notes with this set point out that most of the works are early Prokofiev. This coincides with the composer’s most active period as a pianist of quite astonishing gifts. In this he excelled even Rachmaninov and did so in a different direction even before the Russian Revolution of 1917.
 
In the First Piano Concerto (1911) we can already sense a subtlety beyond a young man’s need to shock. Béroff with Masur take only 14:25 whereas Richter on an old MK LP ran to over 15:00.
 
For readers too young to remember MK, these were often amazing LPs which appeared during the Cold War and featured top Soviet players. These were pressed on such thick vinyl that dropping one on the foot could be injurious. In the 1960s they served to open many ears to a world almost forbidden.
 
Prokofiev fused the three movements of this concerto into a tour de force. The delight of this EMI 1974 recording is the perfect balance and accord of soloist, a great orchestra, conductor and engineering – qualities that continue to endure in this set though with some exceptions.
 
One can almost imagine the composer making notes of what he played to silent films then orchestrating it. To this he brought the modern urban excitement of a changing world – a world before ‘Le Sacre’.
 
Prokofiev’s understanding of the orchestra - from within the pit - was on a par with Stravinsky’s. The two composers however came from different points of view even though both had been students of Rimsky-Korsakov, the great orchestral Old Master.
 
In his various meetings with Stravinsky in Paris and the USA after most of the works on this issue, Prokofiev said that he should have listened harder to Rimsky’s lectures. I am glad that he didn’t because his orchestration and ‘brutalist’ style up to about 1930 was such a fresh voice. Indeed, Stravinsky respected Prokofiev above all his contemporaries.
 
It might seem to be trivial but ‘cover art’ on Prokofiev records usually shows machinery and 20th century images of things which arrived in Russia after 1917 to replace rusty ones sold by cynical western powers. Thus Prokofiev’s musical language was far-sighted from the start and picked up the routines of the proletariat with accidental political consequences later on.
 
Now we hit a slight problem over the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor (1912-13) because, as Harrison’s notes mention, the original score was accidentally destroyed and Prokofiev’s 1923 revisions are said to have been considerable.
 
The Second Piano Concerto in four movements is the longest of the concertos and, I admit, is my favourite. It catches a perfect balance between piano, orchestra and astonishing content although these elements only become fully apparent if one lives with the work for a long time.
 
My own feeling is that what we hear in the various recordings from Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer with Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s to the present day is revised on the grounds that orchestral features post-date the Third Piano Concerto but resemble the Fourth and Fifth.
 
My examples to set alongside Béroff are Ashkenazy and Browning (Decca; RCA) with top conductors and excellent recordings. These are well worth chasing up if the concerto grabs you as it always has me. In passing I would like to draw attention to the fact that RCA’s Boston symphonies and concertos under Leinsdorf have been left to gather spiders’ webs although a few now can be had on Testament.
 
The glory of the Second Concerto is that it explores all manner of sonorities, looks back to Romantic models yet forward to such as Bartók. However the ‘conventional’ layer is constantly stretched in the orchestra. Sometimes the piano adopts a stark language still sounding ‘modern’ nearly one hundred years on.
 
When I first heard this concerto in my teens it sounded so unyielding and even brutal that I thought it must be post-WWI. There is a cruel streak in the orchestral sound in the first two movements, much like in Bartók’s First Concerto (1926), which came after the Great War.
 
Prokofiev hints at the guts of the work at the very end of the third movement in his usual teasing way and the fourth gives us the whole creation in the longest and loveliest resolution of a Russian piano concerto. It should appeal strongly as long as the listener likes complexity.
 
It starts in a tempestuous (Allegro tempestuoso) way with much showing off. Within a mere two minutes the brute orchestra softens a bit and the piano plays a very simple lullaby theme which, I’m told, is Ukrainian. Then the orchestra partners the piano in the development of such a simple device into drama, dignity, elegy. After this comes a great rush to the end. To me, this is Prokofiev setting out a vast stall of what would come later. That rushed coda could be taken as a use of silence to leave room for reflection – something which Shostakovich did in the works that really mattered to him despite official suppression time and again.
 
Of all versions of the Second concerto I have heard, this recording has the best balance of what the composer wanted to convey, especially as Masur energises the very important orchestral writing - revolutionary? - with complete success.
 
The Third Piano Concerto Op.26 of 1917-21 is in the sunshine key of C Major. It adopts the conventional three movement form and has become Prokofiev’s most popular concerto for any instrument.
 
Prokofiev compromised nothing of his vinegar and honey language in the concerto but the ‘classical’ proportions of the work perhaps attract a wider audience than for the others.
 
I have a slight problem with reconciling Béroff’s pace with Prokofiev’s own recording of 28 June 1932 in London with the LSO under Piero Coppola - no relation to the film director. This remarkable recording on six 78-rpm matrices was brilliantly remastered by Michael Dutton in 2000 and released on Dutton CDBP 9706 with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony under Koussevitsky.
 
From what I can discover, the Abbey Road recording was well rehearsed and prepared so the pace of the composer’s delivery cannot be said to be rushed by technical concerns. It is often forgotten that Prokofiev’s hands had been damaged in a car accident so he was unable to play for several years and would probably have played quicker in the days of his First Piano Concerto.
 
Thus the composer’s 8:18; 7:38 and 8:29 – compared with Beroff’s 9:00-9:30 per movement - would appear to have been well considered. My point is that this is consistent with the ‘classical’ form of the concerto and, incidentally, closer to Browning, Richter and others.
 
The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Masur in top form always made a lovely noise. Béroff is generally just right in these concertos and the recording cannot be faulted but I have a feeling of over-egging the pudding in this issue. Béroff seems slightly directionless in the second movement, whereas Prokofiev himself keeps the variations close to the initial theme.
 
Béroff redeems things in the mysterious Fourth Piano Concerto for the left hand Op.53 (1931). Prokofiev wrote this for Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in the Great War. The Austrian declared that he “didn’t understand it” and it waited for public performance until 1956.
 
Wittgenstein was keen to commission works but wanted undue control. Britten’s ‘Diversions’ of 1940 used orchestration which Wittgenstein tried to change but when the composer refused the pianist played it then held copyright on it so no-one else could perform it. Prokofiev’s almost symphonic concept lacked the glitz of the Ravel left hand concerto and Wittgenstein liked to show off.
 
Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Concerto was a foray into the richer world of the orchestra and of new thinking as Europe was being stalked by the dictators. We hear the seeds of what was to come in Russian and British music through to the fall of the USSR.
 
Walton’s First Symphony was bellicose. RVW launched his Fourth in 1935. Britten’s violin and piano concertos imitated Prokofiev and Shostakovich to an extent. Readers of these pages will also think of Bliss, Arnold and even Brian.
 
The mystery of Prokofiev is that he had lived abroad and had a Spanish/Cuban wife. He had no need to return to the USSR … but he did. Rachmaninov played the Russian pastiche card from California but Prokofiev felt the need to go home. That sense and need can be felt in the Andante of the Fourth Piano Concerto, after a typically brilliant opening Vivace of odd contradictions so one has to listen carefully. The Andante is one of Prokofiev’s greatest achievements and a statement of intent in an elegant fashion. Just listen and you have the key to the composer’s ballets, symphonies and other music.
 
The Moderato experiments further with the orchestra but gives a lot to the piano. Wittgenstein’s rejection need not apply to us. The reprise of the Vivace of 1:29 is well done by Béroff but I wonder why Prokofiev bothered writing it, except to satisfy a vain soloist.
 
The Fifth Piano Concerto in G Op.55 (1931-2) is in five movements and continues the exploration of the language which led to the ballets and symphonies. The piano is successfully revisited by Prokofiev in maturity to provide the skeleton of this amazing work. Béroff with Masur is as good as it gets, especially in such a pure ADD recording as we have here. This is improved by using a good DAC.
 
Whereas the other movements of the Fifth could easily double as ballet scenes the Larghetto pulls the work together in subtle beauty as a piano concerto. It is however a concerto out of the ordinary sense of the concept and clearly pointing the way to ‘integrated concertos’ such as those by Bartók, Kodály and Gerhard.
 
I suggest that Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto is far more important than is the general view and return to the opening sentence of this review.
 
The ‘make-weights’ of this set do give value for money and are superbly played. However they are so very different from the concertos as to be a distraction for those who buy the set for the concertos.
 
The Overture on Jewish Themes Op.34 for piano, clarinet and string quartet is played well and the recording is excellent.
 
The Visions Fugitives Op.22 is a DDD recording so definitely needs a good DAC with such close recording leading to a rather tinny sound. Béroff is brilliant, as ever, but the style is French rather than Russian. I will just say that I have heard better. Some Prokofiev subtleties which Béroff brought to the concertos are absent in Op.22; just too much French polish. Try a comparison with Naxos 8.553429 played by Eteri Andjaparidze, even from the subscription website, and my point is validated.
 
Summing up; if you want to hear the Prokofiev piano concertos with near perfect balance between soloist and an orchestra on top form under a conductor’s conductor, Kurt Masur, then this EMI Gemini is for you.
 
Try to get hold of Prokofiev’s own version on Dutton for a definitive Third at bargain price but, above all, try to follow where the composer was going in the Fourth and Fifth from your knowledge of the symphonies and ballets. It all makes glorious sense and shows how a composer we take for granted was a man of astonishing ability and vision in difficult times and across a relatively short life.
 
Stephen Hall
 

 


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