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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1917-21) [30:03]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B flat major (1939) [36:22]
Gina Bachauer (piano), New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. January 1956 (Prokofiev) and January 1960 (Bliss), Carnegie Hall, New York

There was something incendiary in the air whenever Gina Bachauer was accompanied by her Greek compatriot Dimitri Mitropoulos. These two live performances of powerhouse concertos, both given at Carnegie Hall and neither new to disc, prove the visceral intensity of their collaborations.

The earlier performance is that of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, given before a rustling, spluttering, shifting and chatting New York audience in January 1956. This extraneous noise, needless to say, stops as soon as the fireworks are underway and whilst the sound is only so-so it’s certainly listenable. St Laurent Studio has also released this of late (YSL T854) – I’ve not heard it - so there are now two formidable avenues by which one can hear the superb brio and kinetic drive enshrined in the reading. Yet for all Bachauer’s rhythmic vitality, her rhythmic snap, and her fusillade of superb brio there’s an equal quotient of terse elegance in the slow movement, sensitive colour and true characterisation. She could hardly have had a more knowing companion than Mitropoulos who had famously both played the solo part and conducted the work in Paris before an astonished composer. In fact, if you dig online you can find a performance of Mitropoulos doing precisely that with his New York forces in January 1943. He is even faster than Bachauer and though the sound is again not optimum – and inferior to this 1956 reading - it does preserve that bewilderingly brilliant double-act.

If ever a performance of Bliss’ Piano Concerto was to reconcile me to the work – above even Solomon’s live 1939 performance in New York – this would be it. It’s faster than Solomon and Boult’s commercial recording, to say nothing of the Donohoe and Lloyd-Jones reading. Mewton-Wood is a special case but even he has to cede to the bravura of this 1960 performance. The sound may be congested and the piano rather splintery from time to time; the acoustic is also flat. But there is so much red-blooded pianism to be heard, and Mitropoulos marshals the brass with exceptional trenchancy. Bachauer’s cadenza arrives therefore amidst a blaze of anticipation and she doesn’t fail. With its lightened textures but also resurgent, brazen, post-Lisztian theatrics the slow movement perfectly prefaces the resumption of tigerish Romanticism. Writ larger still in the finale it brings from the audience a roar of approval for a performance as passionate as it is accurate.

Bliss is on record as having admired Bachauer’s performance as he did that of Solomon’s pupil, Shulamith Shafer, who unfortunately made no commercial recordings. As I quietly implied I don’t much like Bliss’ concerto – it is, for me, too unrelieved and exhausting - but that’s not the point. Bachauer and Mitropoulos prove as magnificent here as they are in the Prokofiev.

There are no notes, as is usual from this source, but there are a few internet links. Try to hear these coruscating performances.

Jonathan Woolf

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