PROKOFIEV: Concertos for Piano and Orchestra, Nos. 1 – 5 – Vladimir Krainev, piano/ Moscow Philharmonic Orch./ Dmitri Kitaenko – Melodiya MEL CD 10 02227 (2 CDs), 61:01, 60:22 (5/26/14) [Distr. by Naxos] *****: 

Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Krainev (1924-2011) inscribed the five Prokofiev concertos between 1976-1983, music for whose energies he maintained special sympathy. The crisp and pungent line of which Krainev proved a past master has an exemplary vehicle in the D-flat Concerto No. 1, Op. 10 (1912), which moves with fleetly astonishing efficiency, certainly on a par with Sviatoslav Richter and Mindru Katz.  If the last pages of the D-flat Concerto don’t raise the hairs on your ears, I’ll pay the cost of the set’s investment. The rate of percussive, staccato notes oftentimes staggers the imagination, while Krainev’s fluent legato enjoys its own pearly play of luxurious sweetness. Kitaenko’s own contribution shines in resounding, uplifting colors, a most pleasant surprise from the often distant or anemic sonics too often a feature of older Melodiya recordings!

While the B-flat Major Concerto for the Left Hand, Op. 53 (1931) likely will never win “apostles,” Krainev and Kitaenko (b. 1940) make the old-college-try an exercise of gripping power.  The flashing colors of the keyboard against the brass and percussion of the orchestra delight and arrest. Few performances of the Andante have so convinced me of its haunted lyrical beauty.  To credit Sound Engineer S. Pazukhin seems appropriate. The Moderato of this concerto must figure high in Prokofiev’s hybrid or experimental efforts, especially with its alternately serpentine and percussively ungainly melodic line, rather – like the perpetuum mobile  last movement Vivace – a demanding toccata for the left hand.

Even more askew as a “melodic” concept, the Piano Concerto No. 5 in Major, Op. 55 (1932) remains the least familiar of the group, and its five-movement structure only adds to its exoticism. Much of the quick filigree reminds us of the last movement of the Third Concerto, with some small growth as a musical construct. Prokofiev claims to have sought out “a new simplicity” in this opus, but Krainev and Kitaenko reveal only its manifest complexities of sound and rhythm, punctuated by an extremely active brass part. The Toccata section rocks, while the potent Larghetto appears like the “night music” of Bartok or from Prokofiev’s own splendid ballets. The Finale pounds and scampers with brisk affection, including some marvelous battery effects from snare and bass drum.

Disc 2 presents the two most enduring of the Prokofiev piano concertos, opening with the composer’s preferred G Minor Concerto, Op. 16 (1916; rev. 1923).  A new “romantic” note enters into Krainev’s playing, as sensuous as it is athletic. No longer does this blazing work “horrify” or elicit epithets like “a Babel of insane sounds” that marked its premiere. The piano part combines as much declamation as it does bravura, in massive chords and runs. And, of course, we listen, spellbound, to the most imposing of all piano concerto cadenzas, mad, punishing liquid fire by Krainev. That the colossal orchestral tutti that follows manages to abate requires some suspension of disbelief. Try counting sixteenth notes in the Scherzo, if you must. The movement buzzes by in perpetual motion, a concatenation of wrists and fingers. The ensuing Intermezzo hardly reduces the severity of style: Richter said its Scythian Suite allusion reminds him of a dragon’s devouring its offspring. The heavy staccati of this music must be the dragon’s teeth. A martial figure from this movement serves as the melodic ostinato for the epic Finale: Allegro tempestuoso that also sports a grand cadenza. The orchestral contribution from Kitaenko testifies to his own mastery of the color spectacular. This is thrilling, mesmeric Prokofiev, performed at fever pitch.

Krainev and Kitaenko conclude with Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 (1921), the most classically successful and lyrically witty of his set of concertos. The second movement Andantino.Theme and Variations has held me in thrall ever since I owned the Mitropoulos performance from the Robin Hood Dell, in which he played and conducted from the keyboard. More than new wine poured into old bottles, this Krainev performance projects a molten quality that must be heard to believed; this, despite the glowing versions by such luminaries as Argerich, Bolet, Cherkassky, Kapell, Kissin, and Cliburn. If you want to hear this long-familiar colossus as if for the first time, you have only to audition this 1976 inscription by two Russians who know how it should go. You are aware that this set goes directly to the Best of the Year list of reissues.

—Gary Lemco