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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major, Op. 10 [14:42]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 [27:36]
Yevgeny Kissin (piano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Abbado
rec. live 2 September 1993 (No.1), 5 September 1993 (No.3), Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany.
Presto CD

These performances first appeared in 1994 and are here made available again courtesy of Presto Classical. There is no shortage of excellent accounts of these works, but this is a recording well worth keeping in the catalogue.

The First Piano Concerto, written in 1911-12 while young Sergei Sergeievich was still a student, always sounds like an enfant terrible announcing himself to the world. He considered it “perhaps my first more-or-less mature composition as regards conception and fulfilment”. Its early performances established him as a composer and as a pianist. But he acknowledged “charges of showy brilliance and certain “acrobatic” tendencies” which he sought to replace with “greater depth” in his Second Concerto – though that is not exactly easy to perform either! Kissin here makes light of the challenges in the First Concerto, and seems rather to relish those ”acrobatic tendencies”, with some dazzling playing in the early cadenza and in the tarantella-like moments. He catches too the satirical character of the solo part, its nose-thumbing towards the late Romantic concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. But when Prokofiev admits something of their influence, as in the tender Andante assai section of this multi-section one-movement work, Kissin responds with an appealing warmth. The opening orchestral passage of this section has some quietly dedicated playing from the Berlin Philharmonic also.

The Berliners of course launch the popular Third Piano Concerto, first with a languid clarinet solo and then its soaring extension in the strings, both beautifully executed. Then Kissin presents the first theme proper with both hands in octaves in immaculate style. Whenever the music asks for such pyrotechnics, Kissin provides them with precision and thrillingly headlong élan. The initial gavotte of the middle movement is conducted with ideal piquancy by Abbado, which Kissin neatly echoes in his ensuing entry. The finale is as accomplished as the rest of the work, especially when Kissin has restrained and delicate music, which he plays with an appealing whimsicality. The emotional centre of this ABA movement almost recalls Rachmaninov, especially in such a warm-hearted version as we have here.

Kissin was to record the Third Concerto again for Warner at a live London concert in 2008, coupled with No.2, but I have not heard that. Suffice to say that this DG account is in the same league as Martha Argerich’s long-term benchmark recording (from 1967, also with Abbado and the BPO on DG). The live orchestral sound here is still very good, with only an occasional slight fierceness in the tuttis, which might in part be to do with Prokofiev’s scoring. The piano sound though is excellent, the instrument clearly well-prepared so that Kissin’s passage work at times seems to gleam. There is a good booklet note by David Fanning.

This is rather short measure of course, with room for another whole concerto. This means that you could buy all five Prokofiev Piano Concertos for the price of this disc or less, and from the likes of Ashkenazy, Berman, Krainev, or the still remarkable Michel Béroff from the 1970’s. And if you are seeking economy of space as well as value for money, then Sony’s single box of all the piano concertos and all nine Prokofiev piano sonatas with Yefim Bronfmann and Zubin Mehta gives you a sort of one stop shop - and high virtuosity with a lot of notes to the minute! But there are other more musical criteria of course, and the quality of playing here from all concerned, and the sense of two great live occasions, bring their own considerable rewards.

Roy Westbrook

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