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.
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.
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.
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
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.