This disc is a winner, as the other positive reviews suggest. We get a Prokofiev second piano concerto that is just the slightest bit slower than a full-tilt, sizzling, extroverted, virtuoso manner would require; allowing bucket loads of nuance, inflection, and musically evocative tonal color with detail to more fully emerge from the keyboard and the band departments. The pianist is Anna Vinnitskaya, a new artist to me. She is now fully registering on my new artists radar screens; I'm keep an open ear, cocked in her direction like my old Boxer companion, hearing noises in the night that more often than not, utterly eluded my regular beastly attention.
Our conductor is Gilbert Varga. He seems fully involved, and appositely in tune with his soloist.
Suddenly the Prokofiev second concerto sounds more interactive and integrated than usual; not really one of those whiz-bang modernist-post-Lisztian solo outings for the piano (Prokofiev's first piano concerto?), so much as a melancholy set of soulful and interesting Russian-Slavic changes rung on the received legacy of the 19th century piano concerto; a piano concerto now abounding with musical lights and shadows, deeper, weightier. In some way, this is akin to the sort of reading we might have expected to come from, say, Sviatoslav Richter in a certain mood?
Given that the composer is Prokofiev: Yes, we do get those typical, passing moments of motoric athletics, along with the witty-acerbic harmonies - all sounding modern yet skillfully related as music to other family members like Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, or Anton Rubenstein. The gusto with which Vinnitskaya dives into everything in the notes (and, in between the notes?) suggests that she could manage the regular, extroverted manner in Prokofiev, but doesn't have to do so, because she and her conductor and her band have internalized a different view of the concerto. Her reading is not a cover for any technical limitations, so much as an alternate musical vision. A viable, convincing vision - to my ears.
If her Andantino is ever so slightly slowed, it is not by much; her Allegretto contrasts aptly, and she can dig into muscular and emphatic regions, as well as those previously noted shadowy and darker colored tonal realms - pretty much as needed. When the opening motif returns, it is both a formal-structural recollection, plus a reaching, edgy song that sinks in, with the passing force of deeper, cutting loss, protest, lament. Vinnitskaya uses that multi-dimensional musical through-line as her core, shaping, organizing the rather elaborate, cadenza-like piano figurations.
The second piano concerto gives off cinematic flashes, too, like a sort of Warsaw Concerto, written better as music. By the time the orchestra joins in, Forte, we are on the same tragic gestural page - bystanders who have become entangled in the crisis and aftermath.
The Scherzo takes off, glinting lights and muscular riffs. The trumpet punctuations connect Prokofiev with Shostakovich yet to be published. The harmony's chromatic oscillations ground us in recognizeable Prokofiev - the first symphony, the Romeo and Juliet ballet score, the third piano concerto waiting, imminent in the composer's wings. It is played, all of piece, charging right through.
The Intermezzo is bigger than the name provides - more pesante, emphatic chords and flourishes from the piano, angry, even snarling or growling. Lights and shadows take over again - making this third movement another unfolding part of the emerging concerto whole. As musical textures lighten up, the sounds are closer to what the name, Intermezzo, names for us listeners in western classical concerto traditions. An operatic sort of intermezzo is also connoted; a lightening rustle of disingenuous musical themes and pages, giving us some breathing space. We all know, nonetheless, that the larger story of the opera's tragic drama looms before us in heartfelt time and space.
The fourth movement takes off, a gymnastic routine athletic-balanced - and a fugue, though it is not an actual fugue. Spare chords high and low from the piano ting like bells, and suddenly we arrive at music that sounds like a Slavic folk song melody. The piano has grown softer, baritonal, though Vinnitskaya eventually rises, elaborating. As the band woodwinds take up the main melody, piano figurations seem to remind us that the pulse of this music is actually still flowing fast, beating much faster than the woodwind and strings circles of pensive melody would sound, on their own, apart. As the band fades away, we again realize that we are with the piano in a sort of fourth movement cadenza. Vinnitskaya is exploring jazz-like (Thelonius Monk?) transformations of the harmony and the intervals that have been the bones and muscle and bloodlines of this second concerto, though none of her cadenza is in the least blue or jazzy. The orchestra rejoins, rather as a partner in the cadenza transformations. The music speeds up, highlighting the composer's marking, "tempestuoso." How shall we make it back to home base? Who knows? A concluding chord in piano and orchestra signals: Finished. (I've not before noticed possible parallels between this fourth movement and, say, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Both as to the intellectual and emotional sense of a series of musical variations, and the sound of the impishly abrupt ending page?)
As played by Vinnitskaya and company, the Ravel G Major piano concerto sounds like closer musical kin to Prokofiev and to Bartok - at least some of the time, in passing. At least. Much that is customary and familiar in the Ravel music still comes across as expected - blues harmonies, jazzy cheek, sudden bursts of waterfront dive popular song that strike our ears as surprisingly colorful, evocative, dazzling, and, beautiful. The slow middle movement motif - so difficult in its spare simplicities - is expertly paced: slow enough to keep us hanging on each note as if hearing the tune improvised for the first time, fast enough to keep the larger sad-musing shape, intact and communicative. Woodwinds join the piano as contained in this same musical cosmos, world and galactic musical stars all still spinning. Then the strings, too. Baroque-like, Bach-like piano figurations take us into suspended, floating harmonies, then up and down and sideways as the aching melody returns to Ravel's musical spotlight, gradually winding us home as piano trills sparkle and shine. The final movement leaps out of the starting gate, athletic in various poses while the band goes all bluesy and jazzy. The music ebbs, flows, builds. Our concerto train is flying along the tracks, Paris to Moscow to St. Petersburg and back. Four chords and a ketteldrum boom wrap up the Ravel-ian itinerary.
For a fast comparison in the Prokofiev second concerto, I pulled down the SACD with Gavrilyuk in Australia, Ashkenazy conducting Sydney. The super audio disc is far more vividly recorded in five high resolution channels; Gavrilyuk casts his own committed musical spell. Tempos are not that far apart from Vinnitskaya and Varga in Germany. Gavrilyuk plays the piano figurations with more resonance, more rubato - creating a palpable sense of performance keyboard manners, gone deeply affectionate for legendary virtuoso Anton Rubenstein as a precursor - less like Bartok, closer kin to Rachmaninoff? The keeper shelf has room for both Gavrilyuk and Vinnitskaya.
For Ravel comparisons, I pulled down Idil Biret. Immersed in French piano traditions from her long past days at the conservatoire and her mentoring by the legendary Nadia Boulanger, Biret plays the concerto more like we would expect, as if her piano part were related to the rest of Ravel's solo piano music. Sounds and manners sandwiched in, between Saint-Saens and Poulenc-Milhaud-Roussel?
Okay, all back to the keeper shelves. I'm on the lookout for more Vinnitskaya concertos ... the other four Prokofievs for sure. Stars.