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Decca Phase 4
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)
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]
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/ Kurt Masur
Michel Portal (clarinet); Parrenin Quartet
rec. Leipzig, 1974, 1981. ADD/DDD
GEMINI 5176292 [72:03 + 75:56]
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
on Jewish Themes Op.34 for piano, clarinet
and string quartet is played well and the recording
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.
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.
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.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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