Thursday, February 07, 2013

Prokofiev's concertos

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the nineteenth installment, I re-examine the concertante works by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953), one of the major figures of twentieth century classical music - an interesting exercise since frankly I could not recall a single one of them before I started.

Piano concerto 1 op.10 (1912)
My version: Michel Beroff and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1974, 14 min)
A surprisingly accomplished concerto (in one movement, but with three parts) for a young composer. Piano fireworks are set off against a recurring obnoxious theme played by the orchestra, followed by a short romantic andante sequence that is almost an homage to Mendelssohn, but with original orchestral writing, while the final part is a jumpy exuberant scherzo with the orchestra falling back on the original theme. Not a masterpiece, but a fun concerto.

Piano concerto 2 op.16 (1913/1923)
My version: Michel Beroff and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1974, 29 min)
This concerto was lost and subsequently re-composed by Prokofiev 10 tears later. The subdued opening gives way in the middle section to a more upbeat theme and piano acrobatics, with more than a whiff of modernism - a clear change from the first concerto. A short scherzo follows, with the soloist getting ample chance to display his or her virtuosity. The dark intermezzo brings to mind the trolls and dwarfs that dwell in some of Grieg's works, but in an appropriately distorted way. The final movement gets off to a tempestuous start, before the calm sets in with a haunting theme, taken over by the orchestra. Not the best in his oeuvre, but still worthwhile.

Violin concerto 1 op.19 (1917)
My version: Shlomo Mintz and Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Abbado (DG, 1984, 22 min)
For a composer who had already completed the well-received Scythian Suite, this is a remarkably non-modern late romantic piece - fellow composer Auric even called it Mendelssohnian, which is not really appropriate though. It does warrant repeated listening, because there is more to it than one would think initially. The first movement gives plenty of variation, and especially the final two minutes are subtle and very beautiful. A vivid scherzo gives the soloist the chance to display his/her virtuosity. The start of the finale hints intriguingly at Peter and the Wolf, which he composed almost 20 years later. Several mood shifts follow, with great lines for violin as well as orchestra, all leading to a peaceful ending. One of the last important romantic violin concertos.

Piano concerto 3 op.26 (1921)
My version: Michel Beroff and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1974, 28 min)
Probably his most frequently performed concerto, and it is easy to understand why. The idea to start with a clarinet solo is brilliant, and once the piano makes its grand entrance, we are underway for a great first movement with a judicious mix of brilliancy and melody. The second part is in the form of theme and variations, the theme being a lovely melodic gavotte by the orchestra. The piano then proceeds to lead the brilliant variations, one even more stunning than the other, ranging from romantic to jazz. The finale is shaped as an argument between pianist and orchestra, both sides getting ample play time. Although not short on good themes, the virtuosity is paramount throughout, leading to an exciting finish. For me the best Prokofiev concerto by a considerable margin.

Piano concerto 4 op.53 (1931)
My version: Michel Beroff and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1974, 24 min)
A concerto for the left hand only - as so many of these, commissioned by the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein (the most famous example being Ravel). Sandwiched between two short and rather non-descript vivace movements, the main parts of the concerto are the two centerpieces. The andante is predominantly romantic and beautiful, one of the best movements in Prokofiev's concertante repertoire. The moderato starts slowly, but picks up steam, with an almost ballet-like march theme, before dark clouds start packing and bring the movement to an end. A one minute reprise of the first vivace rounds off one of the oddest concertos in his oeuvre.

Piano concerto 5 op.55 (1932)
My version: Michel Beroff and Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig/Masur (EMI, 1974, 22 min)
Right from the opening Allegro, there is a nervous jumpiness about this concerto, that has prompted comparison with acrobats. The Moderato continues like this, but with more sense of rhythm, recalling once more the famous ballets he composed. A short and suitably brilliant Toccata leads the way to the longest movement, a 7 minutes lyrical Larghetto, which has some mood swings but is predominantly beautiful. The vivid Finale rounds off a work that is imo far better than its reputation.

Violin concerto 2 op.63 (1935)
My version: Shlomo Mintz and Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Abbado (DG, 1984, 27 min)
The opening movement takes us to different moods, from Russian folk songs to arguments with the orchestra. It has its beautiful moments, but also quite a lot of filler. The slow second movement is beautiful as the solo violin initially soars against pizzicato strings and woodwinds, and then faces stronger competition later on. The finale starts boisterously, and has some surprising Spanish moments, even with castanets sounds, probably because its premiere was in Madrid. All in all, an accomplished concerto, yet I clearly prefer the first.

Cello concerto op.58 (1938)
My version: Christina Walevska and Orchestre National de l'Opera de Monte-Carlo/Inbal (Philips, 1972, 31 min)
This the only Prokofiev concertante work I do not have on CD (it has not been recorded often), but I found a version on YouTube. It has never become popular, also because Prokofiev re-worked it into his later symphony-concerto for cello. I actually prefer the lyrical original version. The rather short opening Andante has some great moments, especially when setting off the cello against the higher pitched strings of the orchestra. There is a rather disturbing nervousness present in large parts of the second movement, alternated with some beautiful melodic lines. The final movement is in the shape of a theme and variations, but overall it gives the impression of more filler than substance.

Symphony-concerto for cello op.125 (1952)
My version: Lynn Harrell and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca, 1994, 38 min)
A re-working of the rather unpopular earlier cello concerto, this is also known as sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra. The opening Andante is predominantly melancholy, almost like a swan song for a composer who was nearing the end of his life. The long second movement starts with shades of his early sarcastic works, has its romantic moments, an overlong and rather uninspired cadenza, a ballet-like sequence, a dialogue, and a forced ending. The finale opens in a somber melodious mood, then picks up pace, converts to a humorous almost inebriated theme, before climaxing in a rhythmic battle of the cello with the orchestra's brass section. This is supposedly one of the major works for cello and orchestra of the 20th century - well, I have sat through this work about six times in recent weeks, and frankly it fails to impress me.

Cello concertino op.132 (1953)
My version: Lynn Harrell and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Ashkenazy (Decca, 1994, 19 min)
Unfinished by the time the composer died, this concertino was eventually completed by Rostropovich and Kabalevsky, who did all of the orchestrations. The opening introduces the cello singing a noble melancholy song, while the orchestra gradually picks up a march-like rhythm. The second movement is a tender and charming andante, which has a definite late romantic character. The finale is surprisingly based on the inebriated theme of the symphony-concerto, which is developed and concluded in a playful fashion. Overall this is a somewhat lightweight, but very charming concerto.


Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:
Hors concours: None.
Essential: Piano concerto 3.
Important: Piano concerto 1, Violin concerto 1, Piano concerto 5.
Good to have: Piano concerto 2, Piano concerto 4, Violin concerto 2, Cello concertino.
Not required: Cello concerto, Symphony-concerto for cello.
Avoid: None.