The Notorious 2nd

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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2

Jorge Bolet, piano / Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Thor Johnson

with Piano Concerto No. 5

Alfred Brendel, piano / Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Jonathan Sternberg

Vox/Turnabout


To the devil with all this futurist music!

-An audience member at the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Of Prokofiev’s five piano concerti, Gary Graffman and George Szell own nos. 1 & 3, and Richter’s 5 is a touchstone. The 4th, composed for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, isn’t performed all that much. But the 2nd Piano Concerto in G minor is a rampaging beast that was rarely performed at all until fairly recently. On vinyl, you can choose between a handful, with those by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet standing out. Here’s a big difference between them: Ashkenazy plays the concerto competently and with some panache in the thornier parts. Bolet, on the other hand, tears through the untamable beast like a possessed man.

And you kind of have to be in order to bring off the work. Virtuosic, mercurial, explosive, uninhibited, complex, with violently shifting moods, it’s epic and epically tricky to perform. The 1st movement cadenza, lasting over 5 minutes, is considered the most difficult in classical music (edging out Rachmaninov’s cadenza from the 3rd Piano Concerto). Romantic, classical and atonal sounds mingle, descending like a nightmare into ferocious clashing runs and distressing cadences as it becomes more and more technically demanding. It sounds like a musical deconstruction of music, and maybe even of the world itself.

The 2nd premiered in 1913, with Prokofiev at the piano. Here it’s partnered with a 5th Piano Concerto, played by Alfred Brendel (at his best, I think, when performing Mozart and Haydn, and not so much with modern fare). As far as the performance is concerned, which originally appeared on the Remington label, it might be the first ever recorded version, and it’s definitely a protean showstopper. The pianist snipped out a couple measures in the cadenza, but the entire concerto is played with superhuman dexterity, brawn and, when called for, astounding sensitivity. Bolet was a powerhouse, shirking classical composers and going straight for Liszt and the high Romantics, and so is a natural choice for this most brassbound of concertos.

And it should be reiterated that the conductor’s name is Thor.

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