Friday, February 26, 2016

Concert Review: A Marathon for the Fingers

The Mariinsky Orchestra plays all five Prokofiev piano concertos.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Directing traffic: Valery Gergiev (standing, right) leads the Mariinsky Orchestra as pianist
Daniil Trifonov labors over the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto.
Photo by Robert Altman © 2015 Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Although Serge Prokofiev is a master of 20th century music, his five piano concertos suffer undue neglect. It is the current mission of the Mariinsky Orchestra and its music director Valery Gergiev, to correct that oversight. On Wednesday night, the Mariinsky players opened a three-night stand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The program: all five Prokofiev piano concertos, played in chronological order by five different soloists.

Piano Concerto No. 1 is a brash work by a young composer on the verge of his professional career. The composer premiered the work (with himself at the keyboard) in 1910, two years before his graduation from Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He revived it for his matriculation in 1912. Here, the work was played by another promising pianist-student: George Li who is balancing a career as a rising concert artist with studies at Harvard.

Mr. Li dove headfirst into the staccato writing and bright figurations that quickly established the young Prokofiev as a unique voice. The piano skittered and skated across the four movements, played without pause in a furious flurry of thematic ideas.. Mr. Gergiev and the orchestra provided support, though for most of the evening the warm and rich Mariinsky sound was muffled in the dodgy acoustics of the BAM Opera House. In this piece and the four that followed, it was the piano that dominated all.

The same held true for the Second Concerto, another early work conceived on a much larger and more ambitious scale than the First. Prokoviev wrote this concerto in 1912 but the score was lost, burned in a fire during the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution. (Here, soloist Alexander Toradze played the composer's 1923 reconstruction of the score.) Mr. Toradze had the fearsome technical ability needed to traverse the pits and peaks of this sprawling odyssey, the piano providing terse commentary against the inventive and exuberant orchestral accompaniment.

Concerto No. 3 is the fair-haired boy of the bunch, the only one of these works to enter the regular repertory. So it was fitting that Mr. Gergiev assigned this concerto to Daniil Trifonov, the fearsome young Russian pianist with the chops and guts to bring this difficult work off. Indeed, this was a thrilling performance of the Third, with Mr. Trifonov bringing his hunched, intense concentration to the upper keyboard trills and lower range growls that meet in the middle in a display of neo-classical charm and considerable musical wit.

After a second intermission, the sober, gangly Sergei Redkin mounted the stage for the Fourth Piano Concerto, a work which forces the soloist to contend with its challenges using only the left hand. (Prokofiev wrote the work for Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm in World War One, though Wittgenstein never played it.) Mr. Redkin met this physical challenge with studied aplomb, finding some beautiful tones in the central Andante and bringing out the acid humor in the following Moderato.

The long evening wrapped with Concerto No. 5, played with gusto and good humor by Sergei Babayan, who has also Mr. Trifonov's teacher. These five short movements are sunnier and more serene than their predecessors, and yet still require monster technique from the soloist and sensitivity from the conductor. Mr. Babayan and Mr. Gergiev made a good team, and the conductor yielded the stage so the pianist could offer an encore. It was of course, more Prokofiev, one of the composer's eccentric Visions fugitives.