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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concertos
No. 1 in D flat major, Op. 10 (1911/12) [15:31]
No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1913 rev. 1923) [31:23]
No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1917/21) [27:49]
No. 4 in B flat major for the left hand, Op. 53 (1931) [23:43]
No. 5 in G major, Op. 55 (1932) [23:07]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 29 June 2012 (No. 3), 5 November 2012 (Nos 1/4), 8/9 August 2013 (No. 2), 11 September 2013 (No. 5), BBC Studios, MediaCity UK, Salford, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10802(2) [74:45 + 46:52]

On this Chandos set French soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Prokofiev's complete set of piano concertos in partnership with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the BBC Philharmonic.
In November 2012 I attended a Bridgewater Hall concert in Manchester featuring the same forces playing Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 4 which they did to considerable acclaim. That concert was given just a couple of days prior to these Salford sessions. I have been fortunate to have heard Bavouzet play on several occasions. He sets a remarkably high standard and deserves to be far better known on the international stage.
Considered an enfant térrible in his early years, Prokofiev composed his five concertos between 1911 and 1932 mainly with the intention of playing them himself. The first and second were written whilst he was a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. There he gained a reputation as a radical with his often unremitting rhythms and liberal use of chromatics and dissonance. Premiered in 1912 at Moscow with Prokofiev at the keyboard, the audacious Piano Concerto No.1 was used a couple of years later as his graduation piece at the Conservatory winning the prestigious Rubinstein prize. Rhythmically vigorous and wildly unrelenting this is music of youthful ebullience yet the slow movement is surprisingly emotional and moving. Bavouzet pitches into Prokofiev’s truculent writing with all the vigorous conviction he can muster. Often repeated, the forceful four-note opening theme reminiscent of the start of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor soon lodges in the memory. Providing just the right mix of rhythmic energy and dramatic tension, Bavouzet shows that he has the full measure of this brazenly impudent score. The closing section is a raucous romp, a patchwork quilt of colour with the striking opening theme revealing itself once again.
When Prokofiev introduced his Piano Concerto No. 2 at Pavlovsk near St. Petersburg in 1913 the audience reaction was negative. It attracted lots of hissing with a large number leaving the hall. During the turmoil of the Russian revolution the score vanished so in 1923 Prokofiev rewrote it from sketches. Twice as long as its predecessor its immense technical demands are some of the most challenging in the whole repertoire - on the edge of what is possible to play. Bavouzet is in his element with the exacting nature of the writing especially telling in the opening movement which draws the listener into a widely varying mood palette. In the vigorously whirling Scherzo: Vivace - a very short Moto perpetuo - Bavouzet supplies lithe yet controlled playing.
By far the best known, and one of the finest of all twentieth-century piano concertos, is the Piano Concerto No.3 that Prokofiev completed in 1921. An ideal vehicle for the composer to display his prowess as a soloist, he premiered the score with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock the same year in Chicago. It’s a work of high vitality offering significant rewards. It rightly remains highly popular in the piano concerto repertory and has been frequently recorded.
A highlight is Bavouzet’s playing of the opening movement Andante – Allegro - fresh as a mountain spring and decidedly buoyant. The central movement, an astutely written theme and variations, leaves one puzzling over what is to come next. Here Bavouzet’s strong and forthright playing is joyfully inspired. Of the recordings of the Third Concerto firmly established in the catalogue my first choice is the breathtaking 1967 account by Martha Argerich with the Berlin Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado from Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. In addition I have high regard for the tremendously exciting 2013, Philharmonie, Berlin account from Lang Lang with the same orchestra under Rattle. This was produced in the Philharmonie, Berlin for Sony Classical.
A rarely-heard score from 1931, the Piano Concerto No.4 has pretty much fallen out of the repertory. It was one of a number of commissioned works composed specifically for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during the First World War. Wittgenstein declined the work’s daunting challenges and Prokofiev consigned it to the drawer unperformed. It was first played in 1956 in West Berlin by Siegfried Rapp, a soloist who had lost his right arm at the Russian front in World War Two. It’s easy to marvel at the virtuosity of Prokofiev’s writing which Bavouzet plays with such riveting sensibility. In the particularly impressive Andante I admire the way the soloist conveys a tranquil air of stark beauty.
In 1931 in Berlin it was Prokofiev at the piano for the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 5 with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Wilhelm Furtwängler. Inventive and shot through with complexity this progressive five movement score has never attracted many soloists. One senses that Bavouzet needs to get this score out of his system and he plays as if his life depends on it. Bavouzet’s particularly impressive and thrilling playing of the third movement Toccata meets a very satisfying rendition of the introspective and highly lyrical Larghetto.
Both soloist Bavouzet and conductor Noseda are passionate musicians and this collaboration feels like a true meeting of minds. Throughout the set the perceptive Noseda draws playing of infectious enthusiasm and steadfast assurance. The wide dynamics add impact.
I have long admired the Decca set of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos played by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the LSO under André Previn. These were recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London in 1974/75. However, this set from Bavouzet, full of spontaneity and fierce commitment, is outstanding – certainly enough to stand alongside Ashkenazy. It’s only in the Third Concerto that would I look elsewhere to my favoured versions from Argerich/Abbado and Lang Lang/Rattle.
Splendidly presented by Chandos this set sports an exemplary booklet essay by David Nice. The performer’s note by soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is a real bonus.
Using the BBC Philharmonic’s studio at MediaCity UK, Salford the ever reliable Chandos team have excelled combining clear and well-balanced sound with a realistic presence.
In short this is an indispensable set for Prokofiev admirers and all enthusiasts of 20th century music.
Michael Cookson