PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 / Vladimir Krainev, pianist; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitri Kitayenko, conductor / Melodiya MELCD1002227
This set is not to be confused with the one issued in 1998 on the Teldec label with the same soloist and conductor, but the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in place of the Moscow Philharmonic. There are tremendous differences in timbral sound of the orchestra, emotional involvement, and—more surprisingly—the cleanliness of the pianist’s execution. I found certain sections in the Teldec set, for instance Krainev’s entrance in the Third Concerto, to be surprisingly sloppy in execution. Now, granted, I couldn’t play the music that well, so I’m not trying to say that it was amateurish, but considering Krainev’s exalted reputation it was this Moscow set that revealed his highly polished technique to greater advantage as well as his musical sensitivity in quiet passages. Yet is is mostly the orchestra that differs. In addition to a much smoother, more Western sound, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony was recorded in a quieter soundspace that emphasized a homogenous blend. The Moscow players revel much more in biting winds and slightly edgy strings.
I should say straight out that although I love pianists who play with great fire—among them William Kapell, Sviatoslav Richter, György Cziffra and Sophia Agranovich—I am not, and never have been, one who likes pure pounding with no sensitivity. For that reason I have never liked such pianists as Vladimir Horowitz (five recordings, out of hundreds he made, excepted) Idil Biret or Martha Argerich, because I don’t hear any musical flow in most of their playing. They sure as hell can pound the keys, no question about it, but in the end it’s all surface glitter. I keep listening to them hoping to catch some semblance of musical sensitivity, but they always disappoint. Thankfully, the late Vladimir Krainev was not one of these. He had technique to burn and played with tremendous fire, but like Kapell and Richter he was a true artist. He had an innate musicality that led him to delve into the inner feeling of a piece, no matter how much he could dazzle you in fast passages, and that is what makes these particular performances the best I’ve ever heard in these works.
I should point out that Prokofiev himself played quite differently from not only Krainev but also such noted interpreters of his music as Kapell, Richter or Alexander Toradze. Anyone who has heard his splendid recording of the Third Concerto conducted by Piero Coppola knows what I’m talking about. Prokofiev’s own playing was surprisingly light in touch, almost like that of such jazz pianists as Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson. It almost boggles the mind to compare the way Prokofiev played his own concerto to that of others, but the music can certainly take a more aggressive approach—so long as the soloist doesn’t ignore the niceties of expression in the quiet moments.
As for the music, it is almost consistently interesting and inspired. Unlike his symphonies which, except for the first and seventh, I’ve never liked and still can’t warm up to 50 years after first hearing them, his piano concertos are quite possibly the essence of everything Prokofiev was aiming for in his compositional approach. Along with his opera The Love for Three Oranges and his great ballets The Prodigal Son and Romeo and Juliet, they are, in my view, the summit of his achievement as a composer. Yes, I like some of the piano sonatas, too, but I still think the concertos are better. They just have greater inner logic, they hold together better as music (except, perhaps, for the somewhat rambling, quirky second concerto), and they have tremendous “soul.” There is also a great deal of wit in this music, more so than almost anything else he wrote except for Love for Three Oranges—one example being the quixotically brief last movement of the Fourth Concerto.
I also can’t really say enough about Kitayenko’s conducting in this set. As mentioned early on, the textural clarity of the Moscow Philharmonic and greater emotional response when compared to the Frankfurt Radio Symphony is so much better that it scarcely sounds like the work of the same conductor. Everything about these performances, from first note to last, have a feeling of “rightness” about them, an authentic voice that speaks to you straight from Prokofiev’s heart. The effect is really quite amazing.
As a sidelight, I still don’t know what prompted Prokofiev to return to the Soviet Union when he was out and free, and worse yet, stay there until his death. He must surely have had a masochistic personality; I’m certain that, had he bothered to write a letter asking Shostakovich if it was a good idea, the younger composer would have told him, Don’t bother. But return he did in the early 1930s, and ended up stuck there until he died—in a last great ironic twist, on the exact same day as Joe Stalin. He really must have enjoyed living on Iron Joe’s shit list most of the time.
The first two concertos appear to have been recorded in 1976 and the last three in 1981 and 1983. I can wholeheartedly recommend them as the most brilliant and the most soulful performances of these works I’ve ever heard. Great job, Vladimir and Dmitri!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley