Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5

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COMPOSERS: Prokofiev
LABELS: Fuga Libera
ALBUM TITLE: Porkofiev – Piano Concertos
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano); Monnaie SO/Kazushi Ono
CATALOGUE NO: FUG 505
Pianists who can really play the most colossal of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, rampaging No. 2, could well be counted on the fingers of three hands, which is what the solo role sometimes appears to require. Lebanon-born Abdul Rahman El Bacha is certainly among those pianists, making this set worth a hearing. He’s absolutely sure of his aim in cutting a crystal-clear swathe through the Concerto’s notorious first-movement cadenza, the toughest in the early 20th-century repertoire. In order to achieve that, though, he never reaches the heights of Satanic grandeur this music really demands. The parameters set here are always secure, but narrower than Prokofiev’s: they do not extend to the audacious mould-breaking of the First Concerto, the bracing charm of the Third or the epic poetry of the relatively unfamiliar later concertos’ slow movements.

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Less erratic but also less daring than madcap Alexander Toradze on Philips, El Bacha is at his best in clean and nimble conversation with Kazushi Ono’s well-drilled Monnaie Symphony Orchestra. In the fascinating Fifth Concerto, the players triumph over the absurdly close recording of strings and woodwind, compounded by the dry live acoustics, to bring us those ‘outlines of a real face’ which Prokofiev promised would emerge if you listen long and hard enough. For the whole story, great pianists – chiefly Richter, Kissin and Argerich – beat the individual performances hands down. Collectively, it’s not such an easy decision, but Ashkenazy with Previn is a cut above as a reliable choice. Perhaps wait to see what the provocative and brilliant Oleg Marshev, in a long-delayed Danacord issue, has to say. David Nice