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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16 [33:55]
Piano Concerto No.5 in G major, Op.55 [23:43]
Olli Mustonen (piano)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2016/17, Helsinki Music Centre
ONDINE ODE1288-2 [57:58]

Sergei Prokofiev’s second piano concerto is rarely heard in concert halls in the UK, and this is a pity. I myself have only heard it live once, in a BBC Philharmonic Concert several years ago. It was sensational and brought the audience in the Bridgewater Hall to its feet. Alas, it was a relatively small audience. Anyway, here we have a recording of the piece that has left me with mixed emotions.

Of the virtuosity of the performers there can be no doubt, and the recording is absolutely brilliant, as befits the many colours of Prokofiev’s scoring, and I admit that after several hearings I very much enjoy it. But at first hearing I found Mustonen’s sudden changes of emphasis and tempi, particularly in the first movement, to be a bit surprising. I compared the recording with the highly regarded Chandos one with Horatio Gutierrez, now some 27 years old, but still sounding well, albeit in a more resonant acoustic in the Chandos manner. Things proceed much more smoothly there, especially in the fearsome first movement cadenza, where Mustonen’s accelerations and decelerations take a bit of getting used to. I must say though, that at the climax of the cadenza, at its end, when the orchestra re-joins the fray, the effect is baleful and exciting. The second movement passes well, but I am not a fan of Prokofiev in ‘motor mode’ in any performance of this concerto or any other, for that matter. The third movement opens malevolently, with the lower instruments of the orchestra making stunning impact, but I think that once the pianist enters things are taken a little slowly in both this and the last movement. There is no denying the impact of the performance, though, and the extremely fine recording gives the lower reaches of the orchestra – so important in this piece - a vivid presence; this is particularly noticeable from about 1 minute into the last movement. Prokofiev had great melodic fecundity, and it is on display in much of this concerto for those with ears to listen.

The fifth and final Prokofiev Piano Concerto has not really found a place for performance in the West. I have never heard it live, and have never really taken to it in any recording, even the one regarded as a classic by Richter made in 1959. Biographies assert that he composed it as part of an attempt to keep up with the rising (or risen) star of Stravinsky, and it certainly has a significant mixture of percussive effects and lyricism. Unfortunately, the short bursts of lyricism are dramatically outnumbered by Prokofiev the Brittle. He later said of the work that he was striving for ‘a new simplicity’, which he achieved in a new way, but which was not recognised. Too true: it was banned from performance by The Central Committee of The Communist Party in 1948. That fact alone would nudge me into wanting to admire it, but I cannot. The only part of the piece that I personally find at all attractive is part of the third movement larghetto, which briefly assumes a flowing, typical melody in the orchestra, which the piano seems to want to play against. As in the second concerto, the recording is impressive with an excellent balance between soloist and orchestra.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Dan Morgan & Brian Wilson (download)



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