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Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4/Overture, Op. 34
|1. Concerto For Piano And Orchestra No. 2 In G Minor, Op. 16: I. Andantino|
|2. Concerto For Piano And Orchestra No. 2 In G Minor, Op. 16: II. Scherzo. Vivace|
|3. Concerto For Piano And Orchestra No. 2 In G Minor, Op. 16: III. Intermezzo. Allegro moderato|
|4. Concerto For Piano And Orchestra No. 2 In G Minor, Op. 16: IV. Finale. Allegro tempestoso|
|5. Concerto For Piano (Left Hand) And Orchestra No. 4 In B Flat Major, Op. 53: I. Vivace|
|6. Concerto For Piano (Left Hand) And Orchestra No. 4 In B Flat Major, Op. 53: II. Andante|
|7. Concerto For Piano (Left Hand) And Orchestra No. 4 In B Flat Major, Op. 53: III. Moderato|
|8. Concerto For Piano (Left Hand) And Orchestra No. 4 In B Flat Major, Op. 53: IV. Vivace|
|9. Overture On Hebrew Themes For Clarinet, String Quartet And Piano, Op. 34|
This is the Prokofiev concerto cycle for the digital age. Yefim Bronfman relishes every steely flourish of this brilliant and angular music. His performance of the Second Concerto, Prokofiev's best but not most popular, really does achieve transcendent greatness. The first movement features a "cadenza from hell"--a solo section comprising almost half the movement--that has to be heard to be believed. Bronfman flies through it, fingers sweeping the keyboard to the point where you fear for the health of his piano. The Fourth Concerto is for left hand only and is the least well known of the five. Bronfman makes the best possible case for it, and the charming overture is a delightful bonus. --David Hurwitz
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Evidently, Bronfman has no trouble with the vast technical challenges of the Second. However, the innovative, colourful brilliance unearthed by Gutierrez/Järvi, as well as the huge intrinsic amplitude brought out to such spectacular effect by Toradze/Gergiev (Prokofiev: The Five Piano Concertos), is smoothened out by Bronfman and Mehta's controlled approach.
It is not that easy to tell the Fourth Concerto is for the left hand alone--even if Prokofiev's left-hand writing does not reach quite the same level of inventive refinement as attained by Ravel and Korngold in their responses, respectively, to the commissions by Paul Wittgenstein. What needs to be singled out on this disc is the rendition of the third movement. For some reason, the current norm seems to be to opt for tardy pacing--something that seldom adds value in Prokofiev. Nonetheless, Bronfman and Mehta launch into a healthy and true Moderato instead of the 'Andante-yet-again' tempo of most other versions, which so much destroys the lilting character of the third movement. But neither they are able do much about the somewhat anaesthetic 'Andante-proper' second movement.
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra does a good job overall, sounding both refined and committed in the Fourth Concerto--even though the abnormally wide-ranging 1993 sound captured in the Fredric R. Mann Auditorium, especially in the low-bass register, makes the more lasting impression.
The Hebrew Overture is one of Prokofiev's most charming works. Even if being an excellent filler to the concertos, the solid performance by Bronfman and the Julliard String Quartet (joined by Giora Feidman, clarinet) does not take wing like that by Kissin and the Moscow Virtuosi under Spivakov.
Bronfman has also recorded the other three Piano Concertos as well as all the nine Piano Sonatas--generally good and solid performances but neither particularly imaginative nor memorable. That said, his partnership with Shlomo Mintz in the Violin Sonatas has rendered the most profoundly elegiac and exquisite account of the First in F minor--undoubtedly one of Prokofiev's most haunting masterpieces (Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas 1 & 2).
TIMINGS: Second--11:04, 2:28, 6:20, 10:58; Fourth--4:20, 9:51, 7:26, 1:40; Overture--10:27
REFERENCES: Second--Gutierrez/Järvi (Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3); Fourth--This One; Overture--Kissin/Spivakov (Evgeny Kissin)
Prokofiev's second concerto has the largest compositional scale of his 5 concertos being in 4 very demanding movements and written at a time when the composer was establishing himself as a virtuoso pianist. This concerto is such a vehicle for virtuoso display, not least in the massive and massively demanding and extensive cadenza at the end of the first movement. The fourth concerto is a left-hand concerto written, like Ravel's, for the one-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein who did not play it as he said he didn't understand a single note of it. Prokofiev himself was ambiguous about it saying that sometimes he liked it and sometimes not. It was not played during his lifetime.Clearly therefore, any pianist attempting either of these concertos must have a prodigious technique as a starter requirement.
The second concerto is where diverse opinions really focus. Technique Bronfman undoubtedly has and it may be this facility that has lead to comments that his playing of number two is too controlled to be exciting enough. I personally find that his apparent ease allows him to deliver the music without compromise resulting from struggle. Among Bronfman's detractors is the comment that he does not match the interpretive feel of Gutierrez. I too own that recording and see him as definitely Bronfman's equal but not necessarily his better. I remember buying the Gutierrez performance when it was first issued and being mystified by the very poor reviews in the Gramophone complaining of its lack of musicianship and just being a technical exercise.
The fourth concerto has generally been received very well and Bronfman makes a very good case for this to be considered as a worthwhile concerto within Prokoviev's five while not being in any way the equal of Ravel's truly inspired creation. However Bronfman must make a listener wonder what it was that so puzzled Paul Wittgenstein's comprehension of the piece.
Ashkenazy's fine complete set is at its weakest in the second concerto for me as either Bronfman or Gutierrez are technically more on top of its demands. His fourth is very good but I think Bronfman has the edge in clarity. Paik on Naxos is excellent in every way throughout the 5 concertos and should be seriously considered on both technical and musical grounds for all the concertos.
The Israel orchestra is up to the demands of the scores and is fulsomely recorded. The internal balance of the recording is good but the overall balance is quite close but not oppressively so. It gives the performances of these two works great 'presence' and a conductor's ear view but this seems appropriate for this very extrovert music.
The Overture on Hebrew Themes is not a major work and will not be a major deciding factor for most purchasers. It is pleasant enough though. As a single observation it might be worth mentioning that the clarinettist indulges in some particularly 'chewy' tonal qualities which may be an attempt to reproduce an especially Jewish sound. It would seem extreme otherwise.
In conclusion I would suggest that this disc will be a very exciting one for many potential purchasers. However there is plenty of evidence that this is not a disc that appeals to everyone. Many of the points picked out for complaint by some are identified as points for praise by others. I would advise those interested in this disc to try and hear substantial parts on-line wherever possible before deciding either way.
Bromfman is not a risk taker (Pogorelich), a method actor (Richter), nor a character actor (Rubenstein); Bromfman basically plays what's on the page like Ashkenazy albeit in this case with the requisite gravitas. It's unfortunate the demand for this concerto has not fueled more interpretation; for the time being this really is the only worthwhile recording.