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Prokofiev: The 5 Piano Concertos / Béroff, Masur

Release Date: 09/29/1992 
Label:  Emi Classics   Catalog #: 62542   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel BéroffMichel Portal
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig Gewandhaus OrchestraParrenin String Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 28 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This 2-CD set is essential for anyone who wants to understand a crucial aspect of 20th century music but it also offers far more. Russian music from Stravinsky’s early ballets to Schnittke and beyond to countries formerly in the USSR is large in output and mainly great in quality. Given that we all know snatches of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as well as contemporaries who lived elsewhere, I suggest that re-calibrating our perceptions is due about now and this should be done without the political fog so often mentioned.

EMI’s re-release of the piano concertos by Béroff with the Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur covers Prokofiev’s career and musical language at keyboard and orchestra level. It’s a key to his other
Read more massive achievements – not least his ‘protection’ of Shostakovich in the dangerous years. The irony of Stalin and Prokofiev dying on the same day in 1953 would never be believed in fiction but should be remembered.

Prokofiev was born into relatively secure circumstances in the northern Ukraine and following the early death of his father attended music school on merit. He was not the ‘patrician’ figure suggested by some writers. He was a prodigy in the way that Mozart and Britten were prodigies but still had to ‘rough it’. Like Shostakovich he played piano in various dives and early cinemas in St Petersburg and Moscow and needed to do this to pay his way.

Urban life clearly excited young Sergei and the rather edgy, ‘modernistic’ sound we associate with him probably dates back to the heady years of his twenties. This was at a time when Russia’s industrial conditions were rather like those of the UK a century earlier. Imported machines and labour-intensive practices – hence the ‘proletariat’ – were the order of the day.

Max Harrison’s notes with this set point out that most of the works are early Prokofiev. This coincides with the composer’s most active period as a pianist of quite astonishing gifts. In this he excelled even Rachmaninov and did so in a different direction even before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In the First Piano Concerto (1911) we can already sense a subtlety beyond a young man’s need to shock. Béroff with Masur take only 14:25 whereas Richter on an old MK LP ran to over 15:00.

For readers too young to remember MK, these were often amazing LPs which appeared during the Cold War and featured top Soviet players. These were pressed on such thick vinyl that dropping one on the foot could be injurious. In the 1960s they served to open many ears to a world almost forbidden.

Prokofiev fused the three movements of this concerto into a tour de force. The delight of this EMI 1974 recording is the perfect balance and accord of soloist, a great orchestra, conductor and engineering – qualities that continue to endure in this set though with some exceptions.

One can almost imagine the composer making notes of what he played to silent films then orchestrating it. To this he brought the modern urban excitement of a changing world – a world before ‘Le Sacre’.

Prokofiev’s understanding of the orchestra - from within the pit - was on a par with Stravinsky’s. The two composers however came from different points of view even though both had been students of Rimsky-Korsakov, the great orchestral Old Master.

In his various meetings with Stravinsky in Paris and the USA after most of the works on this issue, Prokofiev said that he should have listened harder to Rimsky’s lectures. I am glad that he didn’t because his orchestration and ‘brutalist’ style up to about 1930 was such a fresh voice. Indeed, Stravinsky respected Prokofiev above all his contemporaries.

It might seem to be trivial but ‘cover art’ on Prokofiev records usually shows machinery and 20th century images of things which arrived in Russia after 1917 to replace rusty ones sold by cynical western powers. Thus Prokofiev’s musical language was far-sighted from the start and picked up the routines of the proletariat with accidental political consequences later on.

Now we hit a slight problem over the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor (1912-13) because, as Harrison’s notes mention, the original score was accidentally destroyed and Prokofiev’s 1923 revisions are said to have been considerable.

The Second Piano Concerto in four movements is the longest of the concertos and, I admit, is my favourite. It catches a perfect balance between piano, orchestra and astonishing content although these elements only become fully apparent if one lives with the work for a long time.

My examples to set alongside Béroff are Ashkenazy and Browning (Decca; RCA) with top conductors and excellent recordings. These are well worth chasing up if the concerto grabs you as it always has me. In passing I would like to draw attention to the fact that RCA’s Boston symphonies and concertos under Leinsdorf have been left to gather spiders’ webs although a few now can be had on Testament.

The glory of the Second Concerto is that it explores all manner of sonorities, looks back to Romantic models yet forward to such as Bartók. However the ‘conventional’ layer is constantly stretched in the orchestra. Sometimes the piano adopts a stark language still sounding ‘modern’ nearly one hundred years on.

Prokofiev hints at the guts of the work at the very end of the third movement in his usual teasing way and the fourth gives us the whole creation in the longest and loveliest resolution of a Russian piano concerto. It should appeal strongly as long as the listener likes complexity.

It starts in a tempestuous (Allegro tempestuoso) way with much showing off. Within a mere two minutes the brute orchestra softens a bit and the piano plays a very simple lullaby theme which, I’m told, is Ukrainian. Then the orchestra partners the piano in the development of such a simple device into drama, dignity, elegy. After this comes a great rush to the end. To me, this is Prokofiev setting out a vast stall of what would come later. That rushed coda could be taken as a use of silence to leave room for reflection – something which Shostakovich did in the works that really mattered to him despite official suppression time and again.

Of all versions of the Second concerto I have heard, this recording has the best balance of what the composer wanted to convey, especially as Masur energises the very important orchestral writing - revolutionary? - with complete success.

The Third Piano Concerto Op.26 of 1917-21 is in the sunshine key of C Major. It adopts the conventional three movement form and has become Prokofiev’s most popular concerto for any instrument.

Prokofiev compromised nothing of his vinegar and honey language in the concerto but the ‘classical’ proportions of the work perhaps attract a wider audience than for the others.

The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Masur in top form always made a lovely noise. Béroff is generally just right in these concertos and the recording cannot be faulted but I have a feeling of over-egging the pudding in this issue. Béroff seems slightly directionless in the second movement, whereas Prokofiev himself keeps the variations close to the initial theme.

Béroff redeems things in the mysterious Fourth Piano Concerto for the left hand Op.53 (1931). Prokofiev wrote this for Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm in the Great War. The Austrian declared that he “didn’t understand it” and it waited for public performance until 1956.

Wittgenstein was keen to commission works but wanted undue control. Britten’s ‘Diversions’ of 1940 used orchestration which Wittgenstein tried to change but when the composer refused the pianist played it then held copyright on it so no-one else could perform it. Prokofiev’s almost symphonic concept lacked the glitz of the Ravel left hand concerto and Wittgenstein liked to show off.

Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Concerto was a foray into the richer world of the orchestra and of new thinking as Europe was being stalked by the dictators. We hear the seeds of what was to come in Russian and British music through to the fall of the USSR.

The mystery of Prokofiev is that he had lived abroad and had a Spanish/Cuban wife. He had no need to return to the USSR … but he did. Rachmaninov played the Russian pastiche card from California but Prokofiev felt the need to go home. That sense and need can be felt in the Andante of the Fourth Piano Concerto, after a typically brilliant opening Vivace of odd contradictions so one has to listen carefully. The Andante is one of Prokofiev’s greatest achievements and a statement of intent in an elegant fashion. Just listen and you have the key to the composer’s ballets, symphonies and other music.

The Moderato experiments further with the orchestra but gives a lot to the piano. Wittgenstein’s rejection need not apply to us. The reprise of the Vivace of 1:29 is well done by Béroff but I wonder why Prokofiev bothered writing it, except to satisfy a vain soloist.

The Fifth Piano Concerto in G Op.55 (1931-2) is in five movements and continues the exploration of the language which led to the ballets and symphonies. The piano is successfully revisited by Prokofiev in maturity to provide the skeleton of this amazing work. Béroff with Masur is as good as it gets, especially in such a pure ADD recording as we have here. This is improved by using a good DAC.

Whereas the other movements of the Fifth could easily double as ballet scenes the Larghetto pulls the work together in subtle beauty as a piano concerto. It is however a concerto out of the ordinary sense of the concept and clearly pointing the way to ‘integrated concertos’ such as those by Bartók, Kodály and Gerhard.

I suggest that Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto is far more important than is the general view and return to the opening sentence of this review. Summing up; if you want to hear the Prokofiev piano concertos with near perfect balance between soloist and an orchestra on top form under a conductor’s conductor, Kurt Masur, then this is for you.

-- Stephen Hall, MusicWeb International Read less

Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 1 in D flat major, Op. 10 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Béroff (Piano)
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911-1912; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1974 
Venue:  Versöhnungs-Kirche, Leipzig 
Length: 14 Minutes 25 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano no 2 in G minor, Op. 16 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Béroff (Piano)
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913/1923; USSR 
Date of Recording: 1974 
Venue:  Versöhnungs-Kirche, Leipzig 
Length: 29 Minutes 17 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano no 3 in C major, Op. 26 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Béroff (Piano)
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1917-1921; USA 
Date of Recording: 1974 
Venue:  Versöhnungs-Kirche, Leipzig 
Length: 27 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano left hand no 4 in B flat major, Op. 53 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Béroff (Piano)
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1931; Paris, France 
Date of Recording: 1974 
Venue:  Versöhnungs-Kirche, Leipzig 
Length: 24 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Concerto for Piano no 5 in G major, Op. 55 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Béroff (Piano)
Conductor:  Kurt Masur
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1931-1932; Paris, France 
Date of Recording: 1974 
Venue:  Versöhnungs-Kirche, Leipzig 
Length: 22 Minutes 13 Secs. 
Overture on Hebrew Themes for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano in C minor, Op. 34 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Portal (Clarinet), Michel Béroff (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Parrenin String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919; USA 
Date of Recording: 04/02/1974 
Venue:  Salle Wagram, Paris 
Length: 8 Minutes 38 Secs. 
Visions fugitives (20) for Piano, Op. 22 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Michel Béroff (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915-1917; Russia 
Date of Recording: 12/07/1981 
Venue:  Salle Wagram, Paris 
Length: 20 Minutes 34 Secs. 
Notes: Composition written: Russia (1915 - 1917). 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  2 Customer Reviews )
 Better than good June 11, 2013 By R. Oxley (St. John's, NL) See All My Reviews "Once you get to the third Prokofiev Concerto the competition on CD is fierce including recordings by Argerich and Richter. The great pianists find their own ways to the heart of Prokofiev's brilliance. This Beroff-Gewandhause-Masur of the complete concertos may not have the "star power" of some others but it is not out of place in their company. As a survey of all five Prokofiev concertos it is easily first choice. The recording is very accommodating." Report Abuse
 Outstanding Performance and Recording May 15, 2013 By Mitchell Farber (Ridgefield, CT) See All My Reviews "The performance is electrifying. Beroff's playing is remarkably profound and the recording is excellent. The orchestra is extremely well-recorded and the balance is excellent. The piano is especially effective in the first movement of Concerto #2. This is one of the finest CD sets I have heard in the past few years. Buy it." Report Abuse
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