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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1881-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat, Op.10 [15.42]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op.26 [27.39]
Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op.34bis [9.02]
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, February 2016
ONYX 4140 [52.23]

By a happy chance, Prokofiev’s five piano concertos fit conveniently onto a pair of CDs, and indeed there are many sets which do precisely that. Indeed the majority of recordings of Nos 2, 4 (for left hand only) and 5 form part of complete cycles, available either as a unit or in the form of two separate issues. This CD however focuses on the two most popular of the concertos, including the ubiquitous Third which comfortably outstrips all its companions in terms of frequency of both concert appearances and recordings; and many purchasers will be content with that, especially in performances as good as this.

The First Concerto was written by the young Prokofiev as a piece of pure bravado, a demonstration of his own superlative piano technique designed to impress his listeners. It bubbles with youthful effervescence and good spirits; and although it can seem rather relentless, with few opportunities for relaxation, it makes a barnstorming effect. Mind you, in performance it can be less satisfactory. The immaturity of the composer is particularly demonstrated by his often noisy orchestration, as can be heard in the final section of the score where he doubles the cascades of scale passages in the piano with a glockenspiel that – in live performances – means that the piano soloist is practically swamped and inaudible. It is only in recordings, when microphones can be placed above the solo instrument, that passages like this sound really satisfactory. Here the piano is brought well forward from the orchestra to ensure audibility, but there are passages where the latter sound somewhat over-recessed (such as the bass drum stroke in the first movement – track 1, 2.59) and the glockenspiel is reduced to the role of a decorous accompaniment. And the strings in the slow section (track 1, 7.00) are rather wispily distant in a manner that I am sure does not reflect the volume of tone that they were in fact producing. One might, in fact, have welcomed a more interventionist approach from the producer – as one finds, for example, in Ashkenazy’s Decca recording. On the other hand, we are able to fully appreciate every note that Trpčeski delivers, as well as his passages of real delicacy (as at 10.05).

By the time he came to write his Third Concerto Prokofiev was much more fully in control of his orchestral technique. Once again the recording team have placed the piano forward from the orchestra, so the players of the RLPO are somewhat short-changed in the balance, which is less necessary here than in the earlier score. But there is plenty of punch in the rumbustious outer movements, and it is only in the theme and variations of the central Andantino that we might welcome more solid body in the tone – as for example where Trpčeski’s piano trills (at track 4, 1.50) tend to dominate the woodwind statement of the theme. The climactic statement of the theme has plenty of spirit, however, and the finale is given a rip-roaring delivery such as to bring any audience cheering to their feet.

The two concertos in themselves would make decidedly short measure, so here we are given a makeweight in the form of the Overture on Hebrew themes, which serves to separate the two principal items. The work was originally written by Prokofiev for six instruments (adding a string quartet and clarinet to the solo piano) but he later rescored the piece for full orchestra, with real advantages in the more emotional string passages. Daniel Jaffé’s booklet note seems vague as to which version we are given here; but in point of fact although the allocation of the opus number with the additional ‘bis’ implies that we are to hear the orchestral version, what we in fact hear is a compromise in the shape of the composer’s original scoring but with the string strength somewhat augmented. That is a pity, since the full orchestral version is comparatively little known and deserves more exposure. It is a shame also that the cheeky clarinet player is not given his or her own separate acknowledgement; their delivery of the opening theme is a real delight.
The booklet notes (some three pages) are given in three languages – English, French and German – together with a dedication by the pianist to his children (in English and Russian). His children should be pleased with the result, even though the duration of the disc is somewhat short measure. The recording, given the reservations about balance which I have noted, is lively and present and reflects the sound which would be heard by a listener seated at the front of the hall.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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