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Prokofiev's Monster

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op 16, composed by Sergei Prokofiev - a personal survey of select recordings and performances

Seong-Jin Cho, Boston Symphony Orchestra, cond. Hannu Lintu, March 2020, live performance.

Yuja Wang, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, cond. Gustavo Dudamel, February 2013, recording capture from live performance. (Deutsche Grammophon)

Yefim Bronfman, Rai National Symphony Orchestra, cond. Vassily Sinaisky, 1997, recording capture from live performance. (Rai 5)

Evgeny Kissin, Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Vladimir Ashkenazy, January 2008, recording capture from live performance. (EMI Records)

Horatio Gutiérrez, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, cond. Neeme Jarvi, May 1990, studio recording. (Chandos Records)

Yundi Li, Berlin Philharminiker, cond. Seiji Ozawa, November 2007, recording capture from live performance. (Deutsche Grammophon)

There are few more monumental monsters in the literature for piano-orchestra than the massive Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto. Not only is it in an unconventional four movement structure, but each of those four movements tests the very outer limits of a virtuoso's technical abilities. Indeed, Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, has said: "I bet you there are only a dozen pianists in the world who can play Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto properly. Argerich wouldn't touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as a virtuoso got into a terrible mess trying to perform it in the 1930's when it had gone out of his fingers." There is something daring and audacious about even approaching the piece which mirrors the near alarming audacity of its whole enterprise in the canon of the concert repertoire. While the Rachmaninov Third Concerto is regarded as a warhorse of equal technical demand, it is far more romantic in its sweep and lacks the death-defying, edge-of-your-seat acrobatic intensity of the Prokofiev. There are of course other impossibly "difficult" concertos to play - Bartok's First and Second, Busoni, Reger - but they tend to be performative novelties and none has found itself so cemented in the concert programme as this one has. Of course some musicologists would argue that almost any of the Mozart concerti are tricky for entirely different reasons other than virtuosic. The Schumann A minor concerto too, plus numerous other examples.

It is true that the Prokofiev Third Concerto in C, Op. 26 is equally if not more popular in the concert hall, and thanks to the legacy of Martha Argerich, it has even possibly become the one concerto of the post-romantic age which every serious career pianist desires to perform and master. Argerich, widely considered the greatest pianist (certainly of concerto playing) of her age, has brought such thrill and power to her dazzling outings with the Third that it has eclipsed the Second by its association with being her signature piece. It's interesting that while she has played the First and Third regularly throughout her career, she has not attempted the Second and now at the age of 78, nor is she ever likely to (although she still manages to belt her way through the Third: a feat which continues to stun music lovers and lesser performers the world over).

The Third contains some truly scary passages for the soloist to navigate, including the impetuously fast double octave section in the second movement set of variations and the coda to the third movement which deploys those notorious knuckle-busting clustered arpeggios, but comparing the scores reveals a conscious intent on Prokofiev's part to create an ostentatious pyrotechnic showpiece for soloist in the Second, while the Third clearly has more lyrical, contained and introspective intentions. The one is the concerto of a maturing young man eager to prove his precocious range of skills to the world, the other is that of a more considered, tested and psychologically complex individual grappling with the onset of life's uncertainties. Traditionally, it's not surprising to observe that the performance of the Second is often associated with young up-and-coming pianists: Wang, Yundi and Cho are all a point in case.

Indeed, Prokofiev was 22 when he composed the Second and was looking for a vehicle to both announce his own considerable abilities as a virtuoso soloist and in some ways point a middle finger at the Russian musical establishment. While we know he played the Second, we only have a recording of him playing the Third and, granted there are complications with the technological limitations and age of the recording, but his own playing tempo in relation to his scored tempo markings are distinctly pedestrian when compared to Argerich's reference recording with Abbado from the 1960's. His performance of his own D minor Toccata, Op. 11, is likewise problematic, compared to the rhapsodic pace of the young Argerich's interpretation. Therefore, how he coped with the demands of playing the Second as a pianist remain a puzzle: as we know from historic accounts, it gave him headaches.

Rachmaninov, a far greater pianist in every sense, had no such problems playing his own Third no matter how difficult, which may lead to one levelling a charge of aspiring showmanship against Prokofiev rather than see him concentrate purely on compositional fidelity. Like Rachmaninov, Liszt is possibly the only other pianist-composer I can think of who wrote into the comfort of his own technical prowess as opposed to writing beyond it for the sake of some titan aspiration. Both were super human pianists, so what was comfortable for them remains fiendish for almost anyone else. Even Beethoven, a brilliant soloist, and Chopin, likewise, honed their piano writing to their own range of (still considerable) skills. Shostakovich's First is a neo-baroque gem while the Second is sort of a sarcastic "non-concerto" but both stand as touching examples of honest musical humility.

While Argerich has not attempted the Second, we have comparisons in that Wang, Kissin and Gutiérrez have all recorded the Third, while Argerich, Wang, Kissin, Bronfman and Gutiérrez at least have all recorded the Piano Sonata no 7, Op. 83 and Wang, Kissin and Bronfman the Piano Sonata no 8, Op. 84. While drawing such wide comparisons can lead to spurious presumptions, it's worth considering a standard repertoire of the composer's other piano literature beyond merely the Second Concerto in respect to how each pianist approaches Prokofiev's specific retro-percussive timbre and quirky overall pianistic sensibility. While it would be ludicrous to suggest that Argerich would emerge as the most desirable Prokofiev player for a concerto she has never even looked at, her approach to other Prokofiev music at least gives one that wondrous and somewhat regretful sense of "if only" about the idea. Such is the furious pace and attacking gusto of her other Prokofiev playing, she is the one pianist who brings a consistent sense of fluidity to the demonstrative percussive discordance of the composer's piano idiom. Bronfman has a similar mastery of this specific kind of Prokofiev thunder and if you analyse their techniques on video replay, it seems as if both pianists play decidedly on top of the keyboard rather than into it when approaching his music: the left-hand "strike-hammer" action on the low bass notes is genuinely startling and unsettling in the most wondrous and warming way. It is worth nothing, though, that Wang's playing in the final movement of the combative Eighth Sonata is mind-blowing in its weaving insight and focal clarity: she brings out something earthy and tremulous where Kissin and Bronfman surprisingly don't.

There is one further consideration to make about the hypothetical Argerich approach to the Second: Yundi Li's recording attempts a blistering tempo pace throughout the concerto and while powerfully overwhelming in parts, particularly the colossal first movement cadenza, it completely fails in others: the doomed, fatalistic atmosphere of the third movement march, which should signal an impending air of up-rise, dissent and revolution, becomes merely comic, satiric and inconsequential. Argerich might have navigated this differently, but it proves that the "faster is better" dictum - especially for these scherzo elements - does not always hold true. In his attempt to race through the unbroken cycle of 16th notes in the second movement, Li also makes some notable errors and misses a few notes in the upper register. Yuja Wang and Evgeny Kissin take a slower tempo but somehow in their fail-safe competency, give the impression of a more seamless line of attack. I had this impression of Cho, too, when I saw him play live in Boston: he was not looking to overwhelm the race of notes but was happy to let them float and glitter lightly as the orchestra carried its triumphal and strident flurry of competing interjections back and forth between sections of instruments.

Much is made of the truly mind-blowing cadenza which takes up the length of almost half the first movement. It is indeed stunning to hear it played and even more jaw-dropping to see it performed. No recording or performance I have seen has ever disappointed - the sheer insanity of the writing means it is nothing if not utterly explosive - but on careful reflection, some "come off" better than others. Played live, Cho was somewhat comparatively underwhelming, but admittedly there is always distance and an ambient dimensionality to a concert hall which can be overcome by the expertise of a gifted recording engineer: you are always achingly somewhat removed from the epicentre of the earthquake, even if to compensate you are rewarded with the thrill of live concentrated risk which unfolds before you in real time. You find yourself holding your breath on the musician's behalf, willing him to sate you but also daring him to blunder: there is that strange sadistic focus which is the concert-goers' gathered comfort at the expense of the performer's lone anxiety. If he was anxious (if he is in fact human!) then Cho is a consummate actor: what was so inspiring to experience was the stillness and ease in his body which gave rise to a certain regal lyricism in his playing. His torso and limbs were a picture of meditative calm at the centre of an accumulating tempest, while somehow his hands and fingers thrashed out this crazed and pelting cacophony of thunderous sound at the keyboard. Cho is a truly beautiful pianist to watch, if perhaps a little hesitant as a result: the storm sucked in all of this frantic energy around it but then never quite broke, never quite drenched us. There is none of Wang's rapt electric poise or, in video, the sight of the portly Bronfman who appears to bear down on his instrument, to hack and hammer at the keys like a butcher dismembering a carcass, only to emerge all sweaty and bloodied as he serves up to us the most succulent marble-streaked cut of prime meat.

As a teenage prodigy Kissin was imbued with superhuman focus and drive. He seemingly lacked any hesitation, any inkling of self-doubt. As a result his early performances were visceral, ebullient, flagrantly naked. His angsty, risk-seeking playing of one of the three famed Prokofiev "War Sonatas" (the no. 6 in A major, Op. 82) in a recital in Tokyo in 1986 at the age of just 16 remains one of my all-time favourite performances at the solo piano: his overarching approach was that of jocularly boyish propulsion, yet framed entirely in a sense of this preternatural understanding of the ravishes of war Prokofiev set out to invoke - at times, especially in the first movement, you can clearly hear the random interruptions of the bombs as they reign down against a jaded consciousness, all shredded raw nerves and unending torment, while the fourth movement rallies in furious pace as a marker of stern, determined resistance.

The mature Kissin, in contrast, is clinical, precise, measured and calculating to the point of sober supremacy: there is barely a more technically competent pianist alive on the planet. But gone is the buoyed adolescent swank which imbued a kind of punchy attacking force in favour now of a sound so watertight in its consistency it soars serenely, liquid-like in a furl of sweeping legato. Even brash staccato passages have a kind of contained digitised fluency to them. As such, there is a specific quality of tone to the mature Kissin which is so even and linear that it arguably runs counter to the thematic intention of the Prokofiev Second. This amounts to a curious power in the climaxes of the cadenza which is simply not quite "colassale" as Prokofiev has marked. Instead there is a surprising hollowness or emptiness which leaves one feeling oddly sanitised by the experience of hearing it as opposed to feeling positively infected, which is what one yearns for so that it is the purifying blasts of the re-entering orchestral brass which can bring much desired cathartic relief, not the piano part itself. In Kissin's cadenza, he is trying to live on the edge and yet play matronly nursemaid to his own seeping wounds at the same time.

Yundi Li, on the other hand, takes a completely suicidal route into the cadenza from the very beginning. He is a kamikaze pilot totally committed to the cause. Where Prokofiev marks the score fff, Li gives us ffff and more. Where the tempo directs poco meno mosso, which is necessary to restate the supremacy of the primary theme as well as to balance out those oscillating triplet semiquaver runs in the upper register of the keys, Li just puts his foot on the gas and rides on through, completely defiant to any traffic signals along the way. Consequently, by the time he approaches the accelerando instruction a short while later, which is the true beginning of the cadenza's climactic material, followed rapidly by the dynamic marking con tutta forza, he has literally run out of any further musical gradations to deploy: the sensation is one of mind-blowing power, but it is power which peaks prematurely and then plateaus where what it needs is to be truly staggering but by way of a continual flux of nuance and articulation.

The famous first-movement cadenza can be likened to a marathon: it requires pacing, patience, control, management. If Cho was beautiful but underwhelming, Kissin majestic but somewhat too clean and Li audacious but a spent force before the finish line, that leaves Bronfman, Wang and Gutiérrez in contention. Bronfman and Gutiérrez are the very model of mastery but both - in my mind - make baffling interpretative decisions near the end of the cadenza which somehow scarper its accumulations and dissipate its intensity entirely: Bronfman interjects a paused pianissimo ritardando ahead of the 12/8 accelerando instruction, while Gutiérrez does exactly the same but two bars later at the 9/8 con tutta forza marking. While they both rapidly regain force and momentum, it's kind of akin to our marathon champion stopping to have his photo taken with a couple of track-side officials before sauntering on over the finish line: why do it? Why break the beauty of the run on the final straight?

For this reason, Wang's cadenza stands out as being the most satisfying because she demonstrates the foresight to modulate her reserves of intensity so that they wash over you in slowly increasing breaks, as if you are standing on a beach aware of some distant cosmic lunar pull on the oceans of the world: the waves lap the sand, withdraw, come again slightly stronger, until at last the full force of the tide is crashing upon you: it is a hypnotic rhythmic build up which is all fixed in the service to a larger more overarching cyclic schema. I imagine it's down to her astonishing dexterity that Wang can temper the ebb and flow of such a piece of writing so proficiently. When I saw her perform the Shostakovich First concerto a few months prior, I was certainly aware of a kind of coiled gyro power the petite Wang exudes from her arms, hands, fingers. Like Argerich, she can imbue any note or chord in a phrase or run with a degree of independence which singles out a distinctiveness many other pianists fail to articulate: what this results in is a protean freshness, newness and originality to what had ordinarily been heard as standard, generic or cognitively expected. There is the element of surprise and wonder in such playing.

The concerto is of course not just a collection of freakish feats thrown onto the pathway of great performers. Aside from its series of Herculean conquests, there is a unifying intention which drives it along. It is tonally dark, brooding, questioning and in some places is clouded with an atmosphere of the apocalyptic. It has its whimsical, flippant side too, but orchestra and piano are pitted in an extended battle which personifies the individualistic stance of the creative against the proletarian sameness of purpose; the piano is a lone voice railing and objecting and antagonising the very system from which it derives. The second development section of the third movement has a kind of surreal carnavalesque quality to it which makes me think always of a contrary clown at odds with the company of circus acrobats and animal-tamers in which he performs. The final movement too has a texture of agitated disquiet which probes your sense of calm and entices a feeling of disjointed tension. The main theme here is broad, searching, questioning of some greater authoritarian dispensation which usually brooks no dissent.

To achieve this sense of the young turk standing up to its older order of masters, a pianist has to find a way to embody the spirit of the rebel while at the same time unifying a series of expanding musical developments. My own sense is that Bronfman and Gutiérrez take a firm and defiant approach and the result is strident and impressive: you feel their sheer force of personality win the final argument, have the last say as it were. Kissin, Li and Cho are more ambiguous in their remonstrations: they are politic, cautious, subversively respectful in their line of attack. This makes for a continually textured reading which delights and frustrates in equal measure. Wang, however, seems to take the view that to upend a system you need to deconstruct it from within, gradually, patiently, with charm, verve, surprise and deception. Her interpretation of the concerto amounts to a kind of musical Trojan horse equivalent: her tactic is the surprise attack, the dissemination of a secret, the stunning shock of a revelation, the sudden volta farce which leaves one gasping for breath at its sheer audacity and gumption.

I have a suspicion that where the great Argerich will forever be associated as the definitive interpreter of the Prokofiev Third, the prodigious Wang has already laid her claim as being the mighty Second's greatest exponent.

Excerpts from the first-movement cadenza of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no 2 in G minor, as performed in various concerts by Yuja Wang.


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