PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5 (Antoni Wit/ Beata Jankowska/ Kun Woo Paik/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550565)
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SergeyProkofiev (1891 - 1953)
PianoConcerto No.2 in G Minor, Op. 16
PianoConcerto No.5 in G Major, Op. 55
SergeyProkofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estatemanager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a culturedamateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later beingtutored at home by the composer Gli?¿re. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parentsallowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as apianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of seniorfellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers,represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as astudent Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm andhostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, towalk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite,fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military serviceby enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travelabroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originallycommissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony
and his first Violin Concerto.
UnlikeStravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and withthe idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in the United States of America wasat first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where here-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfullymounted in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time totime to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscowin time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort weIl with thepolitical and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hithertosuccessful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined withthat of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particularreference now to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace.
He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from thesubsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As acomposer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paristhe year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies wascompleted in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas forman important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music,film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In stylehis music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn ofmelody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift fororchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
Prokofievcompleted his second piano concerto in 1913,dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April,shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friendProkofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer inpreparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them toParis, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the BlackSea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk,provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approvalfrom the more progressive.
Theorchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Opus16, was destroyed in a fire, during Prokofiev's absence from Russia after 1918,and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Dyagilev showed interest in whatseemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet,eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, becamethe Scythian Suite, music that Glazunovfound even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Dyagilev arranged a concert appearancefor Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto
to the expected mixed response. Dyagilev now offered a more congenial commission for The Buffoon (Chout), a ballet eventually staged inParis in 1921.
The concerto is in four movements and opens with alyrical Andantino and textures, at least,that suggest the chromaticism and piano-writing of Rachmaninov. The second movement is a Scherzo, in the key of D minor, music that offers atechnical challenge to the soloist in its busy octaves. The original key of G minor isrestored in the third movement> Intermezzo, amarch in ironic mood rather than the more lyrical movement suggested by the title. Thevirtuoso finale recalls in its first subject the first movement, leading to a secondsubject of obviously Russian character. There is an extended cadenza before the orchestrareturns with the principal theme.
Of thetwo later piano concertos completed by Prokofiev, the first, the Piano Concerto No.4, in B fIat major, for the lefthand, completed in 1931, was commissioned by the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whorefused to play the work. The Piano Concerto No.5,Opus 55, was completed in the summer of 1932 at Ste. Maxime on the FrenchMediterranean coast. Prokofiev had originally intended to avoid the title concerto,calling the work simply Music for Piano and Orchestra,but was dissuaded by Myaskovsky, with whom he remained in touch, to avoid this. The concerto was given its first performance in Berlin.
Prokofiev was, as usual, the soloist, and the orchestra the Berlin Philharmonic, underWilhelm Furtwangler. The work was well received, although Prokofiev himself later haddoubts about it. It came at a period when the progressive musical demands of Paris sortedill with his own search for clarity and simplicity, and for an inspiration that he feltcould only be found in Russia.
The Fifth Piano Concerto is in five movements. The firstof these, marked Allegro con brio, has acharacteristic wide-spread opening theme, later contrasted with material that has its ownpeculiar harmonic twist. The strongly rhythmical second movement leads to a third, atoccata, that allows the motor impetus that is often a feature of Prokofievs musicto predominate. There is a slow movement before the soloist introduces the final Vivo with an angular theme to which the piano laterprovides a contrast, in a movement that by and large lacks compelling melodic interest.
The Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik studied at the Juilliard School in New York, in London andin Italy, and now lives in Paris, where he has established himself as a pianist of rarevirtuos