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PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10; Piano Concerto No. 4 for the Left Hand in B-flat Major, Op. 53; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26 – Vadym Kholedenko, piano/ Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra/ Miguel Harth-Bedoya – Harmonia mundi HMM 907632, 70:33 (2/15/19) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Recorded 2015 (Concertos 1 and4) and 2017 (Concerto No. 3), this disc completes the survey of the five piano concertos by 2013 Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist Vadym Kholodenko, who became the “artistic partner” with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.  The live collaborations originate from Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas. Each of the Prokofiev concertos presented here has its own personality, merits, and criticisms, of which that for the Left Hand – and Paul Wittgenstein – remains the least appreciated.  The C Major Concerto (1921) reigns as the most performed of the set, and famed adherents of the score – from the composer himself to William Kapell, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Gina Bachauer, Byron Janis, John Browning – have relished its angular and frothy beauties.

The 1912 D-flat Concerto enjoys its enfant terrible repute, the student score – from the St, Petersburg Conservatory – having served as the composer’s chosen piece for the 1914 Rubinstein Competition and garnered him the top prize. Set in one movement, the work embodies chiseled aggression in rhythm and harmony, as well as economy of means, likely indebted to Liszt. Kholodenko manages a suave balance of vibrantly percussive and juicily melodic elements, its playful humor and often sweet sentimentality. In idiosyncratic sonata-form, the piece departs episodically into lyric statements, only to fall back into dizzying eddies of nervous, spiky motion. The Andante assai well counters the composer’s often acerbic perspective on romance, filling out the lyric impulse with lofty and delicate sonic combinations. The technique required for the presto passages proves nothing short of Herculean – Kholodenko and conductor Harth-Bedoya take the last movement at the pace of a mad comet – while the writing eventually comes full circle thematically, even while having tortured conventional developmental procedure with a smirk and an occasional grenade.

The 1931 Concerto for the Left Hand found no warm reception from its intended dedicatee Paul Wittgenstein, who declared the work both undecipherable and unplayable.  Prokofiev himself did not perform the work in public, and Siegfried Rapp debuted the concerto in Berlin, 5 September 1956.  The first movement, marked Vivace, exhibits a neo-Classic design, a rondo, in modest Stravinskian terms, although the keyboard technique verges on toccata-style.  Clarinet, flute, and trumpet add degrees of restless, moody color to a melodic line that hardly wants to admit to anything lyrical.  The Andante allows the orchestra an expressive intensity and intimacy we have not heard prior. The piano part, notated on two staves, effects the impression of two hands at work.  The procession indulges in some polyphony, and the “romance” of the movement could compete with the best moments from the ballet Romeo and Juliet.  In the third movement Moderato Kholodenko demonstrates his own flawless, variegated capacities for touches, given the virtual breadth of the composer’s sense of “toccata.” Relying on the opening movement for its volatile content, the last movement Vivace bears a similarity to those Op. 17 Sarcasms for its demonic acceleration, perhaps a witty slap at the rigors of the Chopin Second Sonata’s blistering gloom in a concentrated last movement.

Portrait Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev,
circa 1918

Prokofiev began the ever-popular Concerto No. 3 in 1917 but completed it in 1921. Prokofiev himself would record the work with Piero Coppola, but hearing the work in 1931 Paris with Dimitri Mitropoulos both at the keyboard and conducting set Prokofiev to thinking about a fifth concerto to serve for a personal vehicle. The Third Concerto represents something of an amalgam of earlier pieces, such as the E minor melody Andante theme of 1913. The opening clarinet and strings set the tone for the first movement, which soon bursts into lively sixteenths and some declamatory, percussive interchanges between piano and orchestra.  The oboe and some orchestral snaps move the music into an angular melody, punctuated by virtuoso triplets and sudden crashes of fluttering color, martellato and glissando. At the onset of the horns, we wait for Kholodenko to take up the initial momentum to its spectacular crescendo, and we receive a full ration of bravura.

The jaunty march or gavotte theme for the Theme and Variations has lightness and humor, especially in the tripping strings and bassoon. With five variations in which to demonstrate a panoply of effects, Kholodenko exhibits glittery romance and exuberant, jazzy panache, alternately or in concert. After a bluesy variant, the music becomes blatantly percussive, with the trumpet’s adding color to the agogic twists in the keyboard.  The fourth variant has a chromatic delicacy that would serve Kholodenko just as well in Rachmaninov and Scriabin. The last variation wants a gradual crescendo in expressive power and intensely active fingers, cascading to a vaporous, woodwind and staccato restatement of the opening theme, serving as a coda. Rustic bassoons and strings announce the Allegro, ma non troppo final movement, a ternary affair whose main theme, an askew peasant march, will orbit and rocket in intricate, percussive colors.  A circus sensibility ensues, with the composer’s juggling an onslaught of jarring effects. Suddenly, Prokofiev’s fervent romanticism appears, once more with a theme qualified for the ballet.  Kholodenko responds with cautious parlando, while the orchestra offers wind outbursts and haunted strings to foil or to increase the passion. The mortal storm passes away, only to return to brilliance and grotesquerie, Prokofiev’s signature escape mechanisms. The radiant, dazzling explosion in the coda’s major key has been well captured in live performance by engineer Brad Michel.

—Gary Lemco