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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Op. 10 (1912) [16:06]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat major, for the Left Hand, Op. 53 (1931) [23:45]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1921) [30:23]
Vadym Kholodenko (piano)
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra/Miguel Harth-Bedoya
rec. live, October 2015 (1 & 4), May 2017 (3), Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM907632 [70:33]

Pianist Vadym Kholodenko was awarded the Gold Medal at the 2013 Cliburn Competition and then became the first “Artistic Partner” with the Fort Worth Symphony beginning in the 2014/2015 season. This is his second disc of Prokofiev piano concertos, as he recorded Nos. 2 and 5 earlier for Harmonia Mundi. I haven’t heard his previous recording, which received mixed reviews. Having won the Cliburn competition, it is not surprising that Kholodenko has the technical ability to surmount these works and in isolation his accounts would give plenty of satisfaction. However, there is so much competition that these would have to be pretty special to warrant a strong recommendation. Alas, they are not all that out of the ordinary and the recorded sound favours the piano to a degree detrimental to one’s complete satisfaction from these performances.

I compared the Concerto No.1, which Prokofiev composed at the age of twenty one, with recordings by Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Andrei Gavrilov. Argerich with Charles Dutoit (EMI) is amazingly brilliant with virtuosity to spare, along with a wonderful lightness of touch. Ashkenazy with the London Symphony and André Previn (Decca) is nearly as fine in his rather more patrician manner and the Decca recording from Kingsway Hall has the best sound of all the accounts I auditioned. Gavrilov with Simon Rattle (Warner) is very speedy, knocking a minute or two off the others, and a bit superficial, if exciting. Kholodenko, on the other hand, seems slower and heavier (his is only a minute longer than Argerich), treating the work almost too seriously. He’s best at bringing out the melancholic aspects of the concerto, particularly the Andante assai middle movement.

There is even more rivalry when it comes to the popular Third Concerto. Here Argerich competes with herself, but I marginally prefer her later recording—the one with Dutoit containing the First Concerto and Bartók’s Concerto No. 3—to her famous one with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) largely because the sound on the earlier one is beginning to show its age. Otherwise there is little to choose between them, though it is worth pointing out that Argerich/Dutoit add a couple minutes to the timing of Argerich/Abbado. Ashkenazy with Previn in his set of all five concertos also stands up well. His considered and monumental approach, not as brilliant as Argerich, emphasizes the majesty of the concerto. Again the recorded sound is nonpareil with those castanets really making their presence felt. Next to these, Kholodenko is more plain-spoken and in the slow movement ruminative. The Fort Worth Symphony under Harth-Bedoya, while clearly a good orchestra, does not compete as well in this concerto and definitely takes a back seat to the piano. There are many times when they should be heard as equal partners. All the same, among their winds the solo clarinet stands out as equal to any I have heard.
With the Concerto No. 4 they are on much safer ground, since there are not as many rivals. Of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, this one is usually considered as the “ugly duckling.” Indeed, it does not possess the tunefulness of its disc mates here and it had the misfortune of seeing the light of day in the same year as Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. As is well known, both concertos were composed for Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right hand in the First World War. Wittgenstein did not understand Prokofiev’s and refused to play it. The concerto received its premiere belatedly in 1956 after the composer’s death. I must say, having heard Kholodenko’s performance, I have gained greater appreciation for the piece. Here the pianist and orchestra seem to be on the same wave length and perform very well off each other. It was only when I went back to Ashkenazy’s with Previn that this new one pales slightly in comparison. Both are successful, but I prefer Ashkenazy’s harder hitting, more energetic account to Kholodenko’s more laid back approach, even though he captures the wit of the piece splendidly. Special mention also must be acknowledged of the orchestra’s winds, not only the clarinet, but in the inner movements, horns, flute, and trumpet.

Overall, then, Vadym Kholodenko impresses with his pianism and for the most part is partnered well with the Fort Worth Symphony. In a less crowded field, his performances could certainly be recommended for these particular works. As it stands, this disc should have enough appeal for those following the pianist’s career and especially for his take on the Concerto for the Left Hand.

Leslie Wright

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