Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat major Op.10 (1914) [16.29]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.16 (1924) [32.09]
Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat major Op.53 (1931) [22.46]
Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. The Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, 2009

This hybrid SACD is only stereo, not multi-channel. We will start with specifics. Prokofiev wrote the first concerto at the age of just 20 and though early it still sounds characteristic of the composer. The big tune will either get under your skin or just irritate you. It is used repeatedly. Gavrylyuk is completely on top of the piece in all its contrasting moods. His passage-work in the first rapid section after the big tune is beautifully clean and he never sounds remotely stretched. The first few minutes of the second concerto are a pleasant surprise in being lyrical and relaxed. Gavrylyuk is as gentle here as he is energetic elsewhere. He really is an impressive artist. The second is a very fine concerto with a huge emotional range and pianistic demands to match. The fourth concerto was written for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, older brother of the philosopher Ludwig. He showed a good deal less subtlety of thought than his younger brother - admittedly in another field! - by rejecting it with the words "Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note of it and shall not play it." He was similarly ungracious with the other compositions written for him - Ravel, Korngold, Britten, Strauss and Hindemith amongst them - but he did at least play them. The sleeve-note by Yvonne Frindle is a good read on this as it is on the concerto in general and on No.1. Gordon Kerry is no less interesting on No.2.

The disappointments are twofold: the overall conception of the concertos and the recording. Had the latter been better I might not have been driven to listen to the CD set by Béroff/Masur on EMI Classics (originally 1974) and the 1975 LPs by Ashkenazy/Previn on Decca. It became obvious what was worrying me throughout this SACD and the previous reviewed issue of Nos.3 and 5. With Ashkenazy in charge of the normally excellent Sydney Symphony Orchestra we have a pairing of musicians that promises a great deal. Ashkenazy knows these concertos from both sides of the keyboard and Gavrylyuk has drawn critical comparison with Horowitz no less. Béroff and Masur made one of the first complete cycles just a year before Ashkenazy and Previn though there have been others since. Resorting to that dreadful weapon, the stopwatch, I noted a consistent pattern. Almost every slow movement showed Gavrylyuk to be faster than the other two soloists and in nearly every fast movement he is slower. The end result is that the contrast between fast and slow is considerably less in these new recordings than in either of the older sets. That alone can explain the uneasy feeling that nothing was as exciting as I had expected. What is worse, and frankly just a touch disgraceful, is that both the 1970s recordings - standard 'Red-Book' CD and LP both - show a clean pair of heels to this Exton SACD - to be sure I checked the Exton CD layer, it is worse still. First the piano is better balanced against the orchestra. Gavrylyuk overwhelms the texture regularly which neither Ashkenazy nor Béroff do. The orchestral detail is clean and clear on EMI and Decca. The hall acoustic is present on both - on the Decca the underground trains beneath the Kingsway Hall are also clear! The piano is the right size on both old sets. Gavrylyuk is playing a piano as wide as a symphony orchestra. The entire Exton issue is mastered at a noticeably higher level than the EMI CD and it shouts at the listener. I suspect multi-miking and careless production. The booklet refers to it being mixed and mastered in Yokohama; maybe by different engineers? The result is a recessed and foggy Sydney Orchestra. They are given little chance to show their skill. Having heard both pianist and conductor live recently, not in the same concerts, I know they do better than this.

The review is of the SACD layer.

Dave Billinge

Decent performances of three concertos. Exton's disappointing recording pushes the disc out of serious consideration.