Prokofiev’s five piano concertos present a significant span from his career. He performed his First Concerto (composed 1911) as a final year student in 1914, winning the St Petersburg Conservatoire’s ‘battle of the pianos’.
In the early 1930s his style was fully mature when he composed the still underestimated Fourth and Fifth concertos, their new depth of feeling anticipating such masterpieces as Romeo and Juliet and the Sixth Symphony.
Many performers and listeners have been attracted to his brilliantly orchestrated Third Concerto. The challenge of recording all five works, though, has stretched many pianists; not one complete set does justice to all five works, but there’s at least one which gives an engaging performance of four, with a moving account of one of Prokofiev’s most beautiful slow movements.
The best recording – Michel Béroff
Michel Béroff’s superb technique and intelligent approach to all he performs are qualities too easily taken for granted. Since this recording of 1974, so many dazzlingly performed and digitally recorded cycles have been released which offer apparently tempting alternatives.
Listening critically to all these recordings, though, quickly reveals how detailed and yet consistently far-reaching Béroff’s interpretations are. Kurt Masur and his Leipzig musicians match him, in the first four concertos at least, with some of the most beautiful orchestral playing.
Béroff (right) is equally convincing in the light-hearted First Concerto and the nightmarish Second: in the latter work he pays heed to Prokofiev’s narrante (in a declamatory style) instruction, and plays with a carefree quality which makes the descent into hell all the more pointed.
For the Fourth, written for the left-handed Paul Wittgenstein, Béroff’s bantering tone reveals its rarely heard charm even before we reach the lyrical slow movement. After all this superlative playing, it’s disappointing to find Masur unstirred by the Fifth’s pugilistic manner, missing the third movement’s con fuoco (with fire); but both he and Béroff capture the beauty of the slow movement’s rain-bedewed pastoral.
Overall, the set’s greatest strength is how it illuminates Prokofiev’s sensibility beyond brilliant virtuosity.
Three more great recordings…
Vladimir Krainev (piano)
Frankfurt Radio SO/Dmitri Kitaenko (1991-92)
Apex 2564 61694-2
It’s a close call between this and Krainev and Kitaenko’s earlier and characterful cycle of Prokofiev’s concertos made for the Soviet label Melodiya in the late 1970s and early ’80s: with more up-front sound, the set is more colourful but also wearing to listen to over long periods.
In the Frankfurt sessions, Krainev and Kitaenko’s approach to these works has mellowed, with none of the manic tempos of the earlier set; the Fourth Concerto benefits from a beautiful performance. Less ideal is the Third Concerto: Krainev betrays some impatience here, not only hurrying his first entry but slamming its final note ff instead of the required mp. Still, even this does not seriously mar this fine set.
Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Israel Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta (1991/93)
Here, by contrast, is not only an even better-recorded cycle, but one which also offers one of the very best accounts of the Third Concerto available.
Yefim Bronfman’s immaculate virtuosity is here at its peak, bringing out the work’s mischievous fun, abetted by orchestral playing that is lively, full of atmosphere (for the variations), feeling (the Rachmaninov-style theme of the finale) and joie de vivre.
Bronfman is almost as good at the more reflective movements, such as the Fifth’s slow movement, and is impressive in the demanding virtuosity of the Second.
However, there is rather too much po-faced playing elsewhere, particularly in the First Concerto where he and Zubin Mehta miss the youthful charm of Béroff’s and Masur’s recording.
Alexander Toradze (piano)
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Gergiev (1995-97)
Decca 478 3952
First the caveat – Alexander Toradze and Valery Gergiev take perverse liberties with Prokofiev’s scores here, whether the languid tempos for the First and Fourth concertos’ slow movements, or the apparent corner-cutting such as in the first movement of the Third where Toradze misses out several wide-leaping handfuls of chords.
But it’s worth bearing with these ‘sins’ for the character of much of these performances. Most successful of all is the Fifth, which sounds not merely pugnacious, but fun and even playful; trust Gergiev to whip up its con fuoco into a rapid tempo, creating a helter skelter riot of sound!
And listen to how Gergiev and Toradze relish the cock-a-snook build-up of the First’s finale.
Original text by Daniel Jaffe