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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1912-1913) [32:34]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1921) [29:08]
Yevgeny Kissin (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 17-18 January 2008 (No. 2), 24-25 January 2008 (No. 3), Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
EMI CLASSICS 2645362 [61:48]
Experience Classicsonline

Two distinguished pianists – Yevgeny Kissin and Vladimir Ashkenazy – should be dream casting in this repertoire. No surprise, then, that tickets for these concerts went like proverbial hot cakes. As a soloist Ashkenazy has recorded these concertos with André Previn and the LSO (Decca 4524588) and as a conductor he has given us a magical Cinderella (Decca 4553492). As for Kissin, he needs no introduction. For comparison I turned to an earlier EMI set of Prokofiev concertos with Michel Béroff, Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (EMI 5176292 and CDZ7625422). These performances, recorded in 1974, offer high-risk playing with a big, beefy sound to match.

No surprise, either, that Prokofiev, a virtuoso himself, wanted his second piano concerto to be a toughie. That it certainly is, and even though it’s not as popular as his third concerto it’s full of traps for the unwary or uninspired. The first movement starts with a sparkling Andantino, any hints of Ravel or Debussy quickly dispelled as the music takes on a harder edge. Speaking of hard edges, one of the first things you will notice about the Kissin recording is that it’s very closely miked; indeed, the piano is in your lap much of the time, as is the orchestra in the tuttis.

That said, the Russian’s playing is suitably mercurial, if somewhat lacking in character. Ashkenazy’s speeds in this movement may raise a few eyebrows, too; he clocks in at just under 12 minutes, compared with Masur’s 10:20. And even though Kissin despatches those coruscating passages with undeniable aplomb, the piano’s boomy bass and the orchestra’s strident blasts make for grim listening. What a relief, then, to hear those warmly expressive bass pizzicati played by the Leipzig band, and to engage with Béroff’s fluid, big-boned playing. No sign of awkward phrasing or plodding tempi, either. How ironic that it’s the Frenchman, rather than the Russian, who brings out the work’s darker, more sardonic elements.

Returning to Kissin I was encouraged – albeit briefly – by the St. Vitus’ dance that kicks off the Scherzo. However, alongside Béroff’s testosterone-charged reading it sounds limp-wristed. Speeds are almost identical but Kissin doesn’t even begin to convey the startling complexity of this piece. It may hold no terrors for him but it should for us. Where’s the irony in the portentous orchestral plod that opens the Intermezzo? And what of the biting humour, the wicked glint in the eye, that drives this music forward? Kissin certainly makes the notes swirl and swoon but this just prettifies Prokofiev. Surely Béroff’s angular phrasing and formidable articulation bring us much closer to the spirit of this wild work.

Kissin’s Finale is more successful, deliciously quirky and equivocal, but if you prefer this music to crack and sting like a whip then Béroff’s your man. He’s also more poetic in the quieter passages, always supported by alert, committed playing from the Leipzigers. One senses Kissin and the Philharmonia are having an off night – it’s a live recording, after all – but I’m much less inclined to forgive the engineers for making such a pig’s ear of this concert. Yes, the Gewandhaus sound gets a little coarse in the tuttis and the tubby East German brass are an acquired taste, but at least it’s a spacious recording with reasonable depth as well.

Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, composed in 1921, is probably his best known – and deservedly so, given its abundant lyricism and general joie de vivre. Kissin’s performance, recorded a week after the second concerto, starts atmospherically enough, before building to those familiar keyboard cascades. Rather more troubling is the self-conscious phrasing which, although outwardly impressive, is short on feeling. As if to ram the point home the orchestra still leaps into one’s lap in the tuttis. Predictably, Béroff follows that lovely clarinet solo with another barnstormer. As for those lyrical passages, they are winningly phrased and executed, a contrast made all the more stark by the concerto’s encircling dissonances.

Dramatic contrast is one thing that separates these two performers; Béroff is prepared to push the music to its very limits, whereas Kissin seldom strays from his comfort zone. In the latter’s case this results in safe and uninspiring performances, although I do feel his third concerto is more engaging than his second. As for Ashkenazy, he infuses the gavotte with elegance and wit, Kissin responding with rare animation. The spooky fourth variation is also more haunting than one might expect from this duo, the fifth building to a commanding climax. Now this is much more like it. And, dare I say it, the recording balance sounds more natural too, even if the bass remains dull and ill-defined.

Béroff has a way of getting under the skin of these concertos, but in this cooler, more urbane concerto Kissin certainly makes amends for past transgressions. The final movement, marked Allegro, ma non troppo, is ushered in by some fine playing from the Philharmonia’s bassoons and strings. Rhythms are nicely sprung too, and the whole performance is much more relaxed. Indeed, for a man who rarely seems to smile Kissin finds plenty of wit and humour in this music. If only that same spontaneity and affection had been brought to bear the week before this would have been a much better disc all round.

Writing in one of the London broadsheets a critic described Kissin’s new recording as ‘uncomfortable’, and for all the reasons I’ve given I’d have to agree. Nothing seems to work in the second concerto and I suspect some listeners may be tempted to abandon this disc without sampling the third. Don’t, because this one does work, albeit intermittently, and it goes some way towards rehabilitating soloist, orchestra and technical team. For me, it’s no contest. Béroff lives dangerously, and it’s that edge-of-the-seat quality that makes his set so desirable. Not only that, it’s a bargain to boot.

Dan Morgan




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