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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor (1868) [28:41]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G major (1931) [22:20]
Sergei PROKOVIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major (1912) [15:23]
Ivan Moravec (piano)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Simonov (Ravel), Karel Ančerl (Prokofiev)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Miklós Erdélyi (Grieg)
rec. Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, 15 May 1967 (Prokofiev), 25 May 1974 (Ravel), 5 December 1984 (Grieg)
SUPRAPHON SU4245-2 [66:40]

Czech pianist Ivan Moravec died in 2015 at the age of 84. He was what one sees described as “a connoisseur’s pianist”, meaning, I suppose, that his talents were of a lower-profile nature than someone like Richter, say. This was partly because he made relatively few records – though the same might be said of Richter, of course. He was a man apparently without ego, both in his lifestyle and in his playing. He had a huge repertoire but was never sufficiently satisfied with much of it to be ready to play it in public. He placed himself always at the service of the composer. It would be easy to name many of today’s pianists whose philosophy is similar, but also quite a few whose own image and public persona threaten to take precedence over the composer. These three performances, recorded live with applause retained, do not lack brilliance. But there is an enviable solidity of tone, a seriousness of view, and evident care taken over pacing, balance and style. These are all features of the Moravec manner that appeal to his admirers.

The first movement of the Ravel is a case in point. Performances of this work will often leave the listener breathless by their brilliant virtuosity. Moravec’s performance contrives to be both brilliant and sober, an approach that suits the work very well. The jazz references are all there, but soloist and orchestra are content to let Ravel speak in his own voice rather than exaggerating them. The mysterious middle episode, with harp glissandi, is beautifully done, and the performance works up a good head of steam as the movement reaches its exciting close. A feature of the performance is the extremely beautiful playing of the wind soloists. This applies in particular to the cor anglais player whose playing of the celebrated slow movement melody is exceptionally refined and touching. But many others are given their moments to shine, and they take full advantage of them. Trombone glissandi are particularly raucous. Only the first trumpet seems occasionally a little harassed. The finale is tremendously exciting, but here Moravec rather ignores any markings lower than forte, which is a pity, especially since here, and in the slow movement, the forward placing of the solo instrument in the sound picture obscures some orchestral detail. Moravec recorded the Ravel commercially for Supraphon in 2003 with the Prague Philharmonia and Jiří Bělohlávek, coupled with a fine Beethoven 4 and a totally delightful performance of Franck’s Symphonic Variations. The two Ravel performances are very similar, with Moravec a little more refined in 2003 and with a little more spark and spontaneity in the live performance almost thirty years earlier.

If Ravel’s G major Concerto – and specifically the snap of the whip with which it opens – awakened my interest in what we then referred to as “modern music”, I was not unusual, at that time, in knowing Grieg’s A minor Piano Concerto off by heart. Many years were to pass before I learned that, like Tchaikovsky’s First, it had become a “warhorse”, though by that time I was already acquainted with Debussy’s much quoted – and rather misunderstood – description of the work as “a pink bon-bon stuffed with snow”. Listening to it now for the first time in many years is revealing. Debussy’s phrase might lead you to expect something sweet and cloying, without any real inner strength. Nothing seems further from the truth. We might wish that Grieg hadn’t included quite so many fanfares, but he clearly set out to write a virtuoso concerto and succeeded totally. Moravec is totally in control of the virtuoso elements of the score, without ever feeling the need to go over the top. The cadenza is brilliantly played, one tiny finger slip underlining the excitement of a live performance. Particularly striking, however, is the extreme care he takes over the less affirmative passages in the score. His first statement of the A minor theme is a case in point, with extremely subtle phrasing and great care over gradations of tone colour. The orchestra plays extremely well. The musical language used is more advanced than I remembered, with some surprising harmonic sleight of hand. Nor had I remembered the important role given to the wind soloists. They are excellent, as is the rest of the orchestra, and the characteristic sound of the first horn is a pleasant reminder of the days when you could tell where an orchestra was based by the sound it made.

The recorded sound in these two live performances is perfectly acceptable, and in the Prokofiev too, from 1967, though there a little more indulgence is needed. The D flat major Concerto is typical of early Prokofiev, with the outer movements full of driving motor rhythms and a bitter-sweet middle movement Andante. The sense of joy, like a party, when the opening theme returns at the end of the concerto, is perfectly realised here. Prokofiev went on to compose four further piano concertos, each one very different. But this one, at only fifteen minutes, is a delight. True to himself, Moravec turns in a performance that unfolds seamlessly, the balance between virtuosity and sensibility close to ideal. The great Karel Ančerl is the perfect companion.

This is distinguished and compelling piano playing, technically brilliant but never flashy. Moravec admirers will want to obtain these previously unknown recordings, but I think they could be of particular interest to those who have yet to acquire the taste, younger listeners in particular.

William Hedley

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