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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16 (1913) [31.45]
Piano Sonata No.2 in D minor, Op.14 (1912) [18.26]
Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26 (1921) [29.16]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. July 2008, Nybrokajen 11 (former Academy of Music), Stockholm, Sweden (Sonata) and August 2008, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS-SACD-1820 [80:48]

Experience Classicsonline
Despite the vintage of the recordings and a remarkably out of tune piano at times, my long-term reference for Prokofiev’s piano concertos has been that of Vladimir Ashkenazy as soloist, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn on Decca. With these energetic and crisp performances rattling in one’s ears, the opening of the Piano Concerto No.2 with Kempf and Litton can initially seem a bit soft-focus. The balance between piano is certainly more realistic with BIS, the solo instrument more of an orchestral member than a towering giant which can dwarf the entire string section. Ashkenazy was really at his remarkable best in these recordings, and in the end it’s more a wonder that the piano survived at all, let along being left with a few twangy strings. That incredible piano solo in the first movement of the second concerto is equally impressive with Kempf, the recording balance alone giving one marginally less concern for one’s personal safety as it progresses.

I’ve already admired the Bergen Philharmonic in some other recordings, and both they and Andrew Litton are more than just a safe pair of hands in this repertoire. Previn and the LSO give a bit more of that Russian rawness which ideally suits much of this music, but even with their refinement and meticulous accuracy the Bergen orchestra generate plenty of colourful animation and excitement. As far as timings go Litton undercuts Previn by a little here and there, but there is precious little to separate them in terms of tempo for the most part. The gritty menace in the Intermezzo is more threatening with Previn, and his colours are more Stravinskian. Litton brings out more of the Peter and the Wolf sparkle where the score allows, his wit perhaps understandably warmer and less grotesquely cold-war. The grim climax to this movement is still spine-chilling however – neither soloist nor conductor pulling any punches. The Finale is truly impressive as well, the sheer detail in the recording pulling you along and defying you to believe such things are possible. Kempf is moving in the lyrical passages later on in this movement, bringing out Prokofiev’s melodic invention without sentimental manipulation, but conveying plenty of emotional weight at the same time. At 5:50 the bell effects of the cadenza create atmospheres both ominous and cinematic, and Kempf builds a marvellous structure. The piano balance in the Ashkenazy has a bulkier mid-range which creates a different picture, but both are fascinating.

The Piano Concerto No.3 is the most easily accessible of the five, and is justly popular. Written after four years away from his homeland, the wistful opening hints of reminiscence; soon to be blown away by Prokofiev’s trademark spiky rhythms and energetic nerviness. Once again this Russian, or should that be Soviet fragrance of coal and smoky hard work is more in evidence with Ashkenazy and Previn, but Kempf and Litton are equally valid in their slightly less fraught and marginally plusher aural picture. The remarkable last pages of the first movement are very striking, with the castanets typing away more realistically in the centre/rear of the orchestra rather than seeming to come out of Previn’s right ear on the Decca recording. The Tema con variazioni movement is well measured and builds nicely, holding plenty in reserve for where the score demands maximum wallop. The piano solo with those horns about halfway through is sheer magic. Majestic power characterises the final Allegro ma non troppo, and everyone rises to the challenge magnificently. The bittersweet melodic material from 2:39 is inspired, with better discipline in the winds when compared to the LSO, and an unashamed romantic sweep to the string shapes which whisks you momentarily into another time, reminding you with a shock that this music is nearly 100 years old.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.2 makes a good inner layer for this substantial concerto sandwich. It was written in between the first and second piano concertos, and as a launching pad for much of what was later to appear in Prokofiev’s personal style it has plenty of familial relationships with the concertos. There is a degree of echo with earlier romantic pianistic language, but you can hear Prokofiev exploring his material and pushing boundaries the whole time. Freddy Kempf’s previous Prokofiev disc on BIS has Sonatas 1, 6, and 7, and as an ideal companion to this concerto CD this has received plenty of critical acclaim. MWI has had its eye on Mr. Kempf for some time now, and the predictions made by Marc Bridle in his earlier interview are most certainly coming to fruition. This particular piece is probably not the reason most people will buy this disc, but is in any case the equal of any version I can think of offhand. The only comparison I had available was that with Murray McLachlan from 1989, originally on Olympia but now available in a bumper bargain Brilliant Classics box with the Scriabin and Shostakovich sonatas. McLachlan is OK, but can be a troublesome case in places with these recordings, and certainly discounts himself this sonata with a strange slow-motion reading of the third Andante movement, taking 8:34 to Kempf’s 4:40. I had thought there must be a misprint of that I’d forgotten some da capo event in the piece, but no, it’s as if the tempo indication was Largo molto rather than Andante. Kempf strides this music with magnificent and sparkling technical prowess, and as a ‘filler’ this sonata recording certainly fits the bill.

At over 80 minutes of SACD sumptuousness I will hear no complaints aimed at this disc. Freddy Kempf is a pianist who can easily prove himself in the top echelon of today’s artists, and the musical communication evidenced on this release show his craftsmanship has no need for hype or gimmick. BIS’s usual impeccable recording standards are held high in this recording, and while the stereo mix is of course excellent the SACD sound is far more than just the icing on a very attractive cake. With all of the surround information some elements in the recording slot into place which you hadn’t even realised needing slotting beforehand, and the solidity of the soloist in relation to the wider spread of the orchestra makes you realise what all the state of the art fuss is about. This is a recording and set of performances about which making a big fuss would seem entirely appropriate.

Dominy Clements


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