The Prokofiev Piano Concerto Marathon at the Proms

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 15 – Prokofiev: Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan, Alexei Volodin (pianos), London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.7.2015 (MB)

Piano Concertos nos 1-5

Yes, in case you had not heard about this much-hyped extravaganza, this concert offered all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Much nonsense was spoken beforehand concerning the length of the concert. Excluding the two intervals – just the one would surely have been preferable – it barely lasted longer than the first act of Parsifal. However, as Richard Bratby remarked to me, overlap between concert attendance and opera attendance is less than one might expect. That is perhaps especially the case in this country, and is to the detriment of both camps. Germany, as ever, shows a far healthier cultural life; for one thing, many of its greatest orchestras play as a matter of course in both opera houses and concert halls. Although one could hardly award this programme marks for imagination – one might, I suppose, as Devil’s Advocate, on the basis that it can rarely, if ever, have been attempted before – I was certainly willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, one can often learn a great deal by hearing a composer’s development, even if the ‘CD bargain box treatment’ – fine for a CD bargain box – is hardly something to be welcomed in principle for concert life.

The playing of the LSO was generally excellent, although I cannot believe it was the most eagerly awaited of the season’s engagements by the orchestra itself. Valery Gergiev is, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, both politically and musically, but he has generally been in his element in Prokofiev’s music, and so he was here too, even if there were a few cases of carelessness, which greater rehearsal or, perhaps, care on his part during rehearsal might have averted. And so, the First Piano Concerto opened and, indeed, continued with just the ‘right’ orchestral sound. That is not to say that there is only one, but the trick is to make one think, or at least feel, that there is. It was certainly a forthright opening, preparing to ‘do business’, as it were. (I shall try to avoid an undue number of comments on the conductor’s friendship with Vladimir Putin, but the reader should feel free to draw whatever conclusions he or she wishes.) Daniil Trifonov, for me by some way the most interesting of the evening’s three pianists – to be fair, he had the two greatest of the concertos at his disposal – presented perhaps the most motoric performance I have heard, at least to start with. That this was an interpretative strategy became clear when, later on, especially during the slower sections, he pulled around the score to great, fantastical effect, perhaps hinting at, whilst also keeping its distance from, Scriabin. Whatever he did convinced, and that was the crucial thing, and the degrees of dynamic variegation never ceased to amaze. The work’s Lisztian inheritance was clear, both virtuosically and structurally. So, perhaps more surprisingly, were the roots of much of Prokofiev’s later style – and by ‘later’, I mean some time after his final piano concerto, at least as far as Cinderella and its evocation of moonlight. There was some beautifully hushed orchestral playing, not least from the warm cushion of LSO strings, and the truly outstanding wind soloists made every line their own. (This was, I believe, the first engagement of the new principal oboist, Olivier Stankiewicz.) If Scriabin sometimes came to mind, so did Rachmaninov, especially in certain elements of the piano figuration. And yes, that was partly, I am sure, a matter of a very, if not exclusively, ‘Russian’ brand of piano virtuosity.

The Second Piano Concerto is heard less often: partly, I suspect, on account of its extreme technical difficulties, but also surely testament to its unusual structure. Here, I did not find that remotely a problem. If it receives a good performance, which it did, then such a problem, if indeed problem it be, seems suspended during playing. Sergei Babayan and the orchestra again offered sound that seemed ‘right’, without that necessarily precluding alternatives. Acerbic Romanticism, almost a very Russian Brahms sound, emerged at times, more so at the keyboard. The music is more discursive, of course, and the performance seemed content, in my view quite rightly, not to curb that tendency unduly. I very much liked the Babousha-like playing in the first movement, akin to half-speed Sarcasms, heading toward the grotesquerie of The Love for Three Oranges. A keen rhythmic sense was crucially maintained throughout. After the huge cadenza, the LSO brass entry still managed to sound awe-inspiring, before the music subsided into nothingness. The second movement proved a surprisingly light-footed moto perpetuo: Mendelssohn for the age of the internal combustion engine. Its successor then seemed to hark back to the age of Mussorgsky’s ‘Bydlo’, brass and drums infallibly setting the scene for some more flat-footed (knowingly so) piano grotesquerie. Dances emerged from one another, slightly deformed. Contrast was thus to be discerned in the more balletic material of the fourth movement: on speed, as well as at speed? Also, alas, in one of the more extended of the evening’s passages for mobile telephone. The ‘side-stepping’ quality of Prokofiev’s melodies was clearly relished but, commendably, not exaggerated. Formal oddities, then, were neither camouflaged nor played up. This was, perhaps, surrealism avant la lettre, or avant L’Ange du feu.

The Third Piano Concerto, surely everyone’s candidate for the greatest, is the most Classically proportioned: three movements of more or less equal length. However, in this performance, it sounded considerably less Classical in spirit than it often does (for instance, in my favourite set of the concertos, from Michel Béroff, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Kurt Masur). It was none the worse for that; Trifonov and Gergiev for the most part convinced on their own, often imaginative terms. The opening of the first movement was sinuous, with perhaps the most athletic piano entry I have heard here. It was probably the fastest tempo I have heard for the movement too, although that proved highly flexible; Classical, I should reiterate, this was not. The weight of chords, where necessary, offered a masterclass in modern piano touch. Again, in spirit we seemed close to the fantastical world of The Love for Three Oranges. The slow movement offered similar virtues, albeit with different (for the most part) character. Its lithe passages were lithe indeed (and threatening); its ruminative passages were ruminative indeed (and enchanting); and so on. Trifonov’s leaning into syncopations truly made them tell musically; they were no mere ‘effect’. The finale, however, I found a little puzzling, curiously deliberate. Again, the fantastical elements came off very well, as did the LSO’s moonlit Romanticism. I was left feeling that a little more coherence and depth might have been achieved. As piano playing, however, and as rather more than that, there was a great deal to admire.

The left-hand Fourth Piano Concerto, surprisingly receiving its first Proms performance, proved, for me at least, something of a trial. I think that was more a matter of the ‘programming’ than the performance, although the LSO sometimes seemed a little tired by now. With the best will in the world, it is hardly the equal of what had gone before. Alexei Volodin’s despatch of the piano part, especially in the first movement, offered intriguing parallels with the motorism Trifonov had brought to the First Concerto. Voicing within his single hand – or rather, the single hand he was using – was impressive. Soon, however, and certainly by the second movement, it was difficult to avoid the impression that what we heard was mostly to be understood at surface level, and I think that is a reflection of the piece itself. It really is not clear here, or at least was not on this occasion, how ideas follow on, or indeed how movements follow on, the third movement seemingly appearing from nowhere. I know this is not Ravel, and is not trying to be, but even so… The blandness of the gestures and material here and in the finale’s reheating of the first movement did nothing to dispel notions of fatigue all around.

The Fifth also received its first outing at the Proms. I was unable on this occasion to renounce my long-held view that it and its predecessor are considerably weaker works than their predecessors. I suspect, though, that they could make more of an impact if more sensitively programmed – it would hardly be difficult Again, it was the first movement that emerged strongest, feeling somewhat haunted by Stravinsky, without ever sounding ‘like’ him. Neo-Classical tendencies threatened to invade without ever quite succeeding in doing so. There was no doubting Babayan’s technical command, although again, how the music fits together remained an open question (not, I think, his fault). The tick-tocking of the orchestra in the second movement was accomplished very well by the LSO; I find little else to say about the material. The following Toccata was certainly Allegro but, at least at its opening, might have been a little more con fuoco. That came soon enough, though, and I was won round by Babayan’s initial more-is-less strategy as the more modernistic Prokofiev briefly asserted himself. The different moods of the fourth movement were well characterised; there was more than a hint of the Soviet future to be heard. Again, quite how this all coheres remains questionable. The finale did little to dispel notions of re-heating, despite occasional hints of originality, such as the duet for two bassoons. And then, suddenly, it stopped; not, I am afraid to say, in the spirit of Wozzeck. Goodness knows what Furtwängler, who conducted the first performance, must have thought.

Mark Berry

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