PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos 1 – 5 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, p./ BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda – Chandos (2 CDs)

PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos 1 – 5 = Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10; Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26; Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major (for the left hand), Op. 53; Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, p./ BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda – Chandos CHAN 10802 (2 CDs), 74:45, 46:52 [Distr. by Naxos] (2/4/14) *****:

ICMA Artist of the Year 2012 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (b. 1962) extends his hegemony in matters virtuosic with these splendid renditions (rec. June 2012-September 2013) of  the Sergei Prokofiev’s five concertos, supported by an alert, responsive BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, a conductor already noted for his fine Liszt recordings. The Prokofiev Concertos still elicit surprise, wonder, and a degree of unease in their bold approach to the keyboard, written between 1907-1932, mainly as vehicles for the composer’s own use as a touring virtuoso. They combine an aggressively urbane and iconoclastic spirit with a deep, even tragic, lyricism— qualities that Bavouzet insists upon in his resonant and often shattering interpretations.

The D-flat Concerto, which Prokofiev premiered as part of his application for the Rubinstein Prize in 1912, romps and sings as a wild display piece, modeled after the compact Piano Concerto of Rimsky-Korsakov. Angular and lyric, the piece advances upon and dodges major key centers willfully, a light and devilish work that sneers at academia and frolics in astonishing sleights of hand while occasionally making a sincerely touching point – in the Adagio assai – emotionally.

The G Minor Concerto of 1913 – the dearest to the composer’s heart – means to be a formidable challenge to the interpreter and listener alike. A tragic event, the death of fellow student Max Schmidthof by his own hand, adds a distinctly eerie pathos to the concerto. The toccata-like Scherzo movement basks in the “primitivist” style of the Scythian Suite, yet the scoring often becomes transparent and the melodies lyrical in the Russian Romantic tradition. The truly imposing first movement cadenza results from Prokofiev’s own deliberations on the Tchaikovsky cadenza from his famed B-flat Minor Concerto.  It is the Intermezzo movement that sounds the most forward-looking, with its leaping keyboard intervals and orchestral stomping effects. Bavouzet and Noseda achieve a fabulous ambiance for a veritable firestorm of a composition, colorful and wickedly impertinent, a rival to my own model performance, heard in concert, by Shura Cherkassky and Josef Krips. The last movement’s Meno mosso martial gait assumes a liquid charm, over which Bavouzet weaves an elaborate tapestry of eddied filigree suavely elastic and beguiling, ever more vertiginous and moving to an ineluctable Allegro tempestuoso that virtually consumes us in a voracious flurry of hectic, spasmodic gestures of extraordinary vitality.

The ever popular C Major Concerto (1921) receives a sparkling, optimistic reading from our principals, with superb coordination of the parts, especially in the BBC woodwinds. The few but pungent first movement dissonances – the parallel triads, for instance, that run upwards – only add a mesmerizing spice to a blazing concoction of colors. The second movement Tema andantino, a virtual gavotte much in the manner of the style Prokofiev constructs for Romeo and Juliet, enjoys a subtle surface patina, then explodes forward with piano, trumpet and strings with resonant panache. The music vacillates between icy sarcasm and haunted night-music, before it once launches into the “primitive” mode that Prokofiev had planned for Diaghilev’s ballet ensembles.  The last movement always compels by dint of its rhythmic thrusts and color combinations; and here, Nosada makes a sterling impression for wit and accuracy in his support of Bavouzet’s often clanky, sporadic runs and broken chords. Suddenly, a lovely, melancholy tune rises out of the rhythmic rubble, a tune romantic and wistfully nostalgic as anything in Rachmaninov. The fireworks soon resume, and we are not disappointed to hear the sleek energy of the bristling da capo, an electric verve that blazes up, up, and away.

The last two of Prokofiev’s efforts in the piano concerto form remain his least appreciated: the B-flat Major Concerto (1931) composed for the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein, and the “experimental” Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major (1936). The first movement of the Left-Hand Concerto begins with a relentless toccata from the keyboard in angular harmonies, supported by a percussive matrix in the orchestra that verges on a Bartok sound. The two interior movements complement each other: a large Andante – opening in strings that anticipate the Sixth Symphony –  that challenges Bavouzet’s left hand to perform two diametrically opposed cross-rhythms in 2/4  and 6/8 while the main theme swells up in another romantic strain a la Romeo and Juliet. A trumpet solo announces a gloomy idea that quickly evolves into a jazzy Allegro moderato that reveals Bavouzet’s talents in another musical idiom, should he prefer. The melodic tissue comes and goes, coheres and dissolves in martial figures, most mercurially and sometimes, percussively. The last movement accomplishes what Chopin does in the last movement of his B-flat Minor Sonata: strip melody away and leave us with rippling but barren leaves.

The G Major Concerto meant to achieve “a new simplicity” in the composer’s oeuvre, but his fear of repeating compositional formulas led to complexity.  If the first movement manages to  avoid melodic sweetness in its athletic hurdling which Bavouzet accomplishes with digital aplomb, the potent fourth movement Larghetto concedes to his innate romantic impulse, aided by flute and muted strings. A solemn cadenza intrudes and ushers in a more disturbed song, reminiscent of the thudding anguish in Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. In the meantime, the second movement rather sports with martial and skipping figures, Bavouzet’s executing a series of sweeping block chords mixed with glissandi, quite sarcastic in temper. For extra high voltage, the third movement unabashedly requires an acrobat’s Toccata: Allegro con fuoco.  The BBC strings and trumpet exert much haste to keep up with Bavouzet, especially when the trumpet blares away with Bavouzet’s strutting a theme in 12/8.  “A Haydn on speed” is Bavouzet’s epithet for the Prokofiev whose Vivo finale has submerged its melody until it surfaces in xylophone sonorities accompanied by two bassoons. The entire movement exhibits a breezy boulevardier affect that embraces Stravinsky and Ibert.  A kind of peasant-march melody rises up for syncopated treatment as Bavouzet performs wizard broken scales and punched, accented chords. The rush to judgment takes us home to G Major, a sarcastic, gaudy landing back home.

—Gary Lemco

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