PROKOFIEV Piano Concertos Nos. 1 - 5 (Complete)
You could say, with some justification, that many pianists who excel in Haydn also excel in Prokofiev, where similar qualities pertain – above all wit, intelligence, a keen sense of rhythm and an understanding of the composer’s often audacious muse. Think of Richter, Argerich, Horowitz, Gilels, Browning, even Alfred Brendel, who made a very early recording of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto.
Jean‑Efflam Bavouzet’s superb cycle of the concertos with the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda promotes a combination of lyricism and chutzpah that lies at the very heart of these endlessly fascinating works, Prokofiev constantly renewing himself, invariably building on foundation blocks that he’d laid in the previous concerto. Their reading of the gnomic First Concerto flanks a warmly felt Andante (featuring especially tender string-playing) with extrovert high spirits, helped in this context by a recording that does full justice to Prokofiev’s high percussion-writing. The Second Concerto is a brute of a piece with a massive first-movement cadenza that Bavouzet drifts into almost without our noticing, striding across one vast tundra after another before brass and timps boldly emerge with news that he’s at last reached the other side. No Romantic concerto harbours more gruelling technical demands or a potentially richer pay-off as a result of them, and Bavouzet is on magnificent form. The brief moto perpetuo Scherzo clears the air before the big guns re-emerge fee-fi-fo-fum style with the Intermezzo, though I would have preferred a broader, more imposing tempo at the outset (ie Vladimir Krainev and Dmitri Kitaenko in Frankfurt on Teldec or Moscow on Eurodisc). The variegated finale, almost a concerto itself with a more contemplative centre, rounds off an exceptional performance. I have fond memories of hearing Ashkenazy live in this work (his Decca recording is still a viable contender) but Bavouzet comfortably holds his own, even with a roll-call of CD rivals that includes, in addition to Ashkenazy and Krainev, Viktoria Postnikova (Teldec) and John Browning (RCA).
The Third Concerto, easily the cycle’s most popular instalment, maintains these high standards without flinching, from the mostly energised first movement, through the beautifully gauged variations of the second (note Bavouzet’s smoothly articulated first entry and Noseda’s unusually thoughtful handling of the coda from 8'26") to a finale that opens as a strutting gavotte, crisp as ice under Bavouzet’s hands, and ends as a riot of excited sound. Here Prokofiev happily plays to the gallery but keeps a dozen or so meaningful tricks up his sleeve, the unexpectedly romantic detour at the heart of the finale being one. Bavouzet’s way with the Third is chipper and cool, while Noseda and his players are mindful of an orchestral score that is both supportive of the soloist and characteristically colourful in its own right.
The Fourth (left-hand) and Fifth Concertos are notable for their burlesque use of the bass drum, vividly captured by the Chandos engineers. Both works push the originality factor a notch or two higher, the Fourth carefree and nimble, with a finale that condenses the first movement’s essentials from ‘medium size’ to ‘miniature’ (in this context from 4'26" to 1'35") and a third movement that recalls the gangland-style sense of menace that fills the Second Concerto’s Intermezzo. Bavouzet and Noseda capture the strangeness of this piece (only Serkin and Ormandy on Sony dig a little deeper), bringing the desolate world of the wonderful Andante third movement a step or so nearer to a Russian compatriot who rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as Prokofiev, namely Shostakovich. Prokofiev employs the restraining imperative visited on him (ie using the left hand only) by having his soloist respond, at times desperately, to an increasingly intense orchestral narrative, and the outcome is at times unbearably poignant. Here and elsewhere Bavouzet and his collaborators push for maximum pathos, although in an extremely interesting ‘performer’s note’ appended to the main booklet text, Bavouzet admits to finding the work hard to grasp and explains the nature of his epiphany (though I shan’t let on what it was). His mastery is as much in evidence for the even more combative Fifth Concerto, its bolshie opening Allegro con brio confrontational from the first bar (obdurately ‘difficult’ music, this, but enormous fun), the Moderato that follows, with its cheeky glissandos, pushing the challenges even further. There’s a brief Toccata where the opening theme is sent into a further spin, an alluring Larghetto with a searing climax (premonitions here of the great ballets and the Second String Quartet) and a finale that ends with an accelerating march. Throughout, Bavouzet displays a light touch and laudable levels of physical stamina, with a firm grasp of the very different personalities of each piece. Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic perform like soulmates for the duration, and with superb notes by the Prokofiev scholar David Nice as part of the deal, you can hardly go wrong.