Saturday, November 18, 2017

A plethora of Prokofiev: ISO opens weekend devoted to the Russian composer's piano concertos

Precocious and independent-minded, Sergei Prokofiev saw his mission as a composer from the keyboard outward. This perspective makes his piano concertos especially revealing of his personality. A restive student who took into adulthood a canny instinct for putting his best foot forward, he produced music that seems to admit no obstacles. In fact, he had to trim his sails upon his return to Stalinist Russia, but he proved able to do that too, despite feeling the regime's hot breath on his neck.

Of the five piano concertos he wrote, the three presented Friday night by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra span 20 years on either side of the Revolution whose centenary is being observed this year. Crowning the set was No. 3 in C major, contemporaneous with the Bolshevik crucible out of which a new tyranny emerged from the old. Typically, the work, cobbled together between 1917 and 1921, goes its own glorious way without allusion to the great national struggle.

Local favorite Garrick Ohlsson returns for ISO's Prokofiev weekend.
As soloist for this durable masterpiece, the ISO could hardly have done better than Garrick Ohlsson. Now something of an elder statesman, Ohlsson has been in the forefront of American concert pianists since he won the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw in 1970. I first heard him the following year, playing an unusual recital in Ann Arbor that showed his adeptness in Baroque music as well as in early modern French and Spanish pieces.

His interpretation of the Prokofiev Third, smoothly coordinated with music director Krzysztof Urbanski's control of the orchestra, was quite well-knit. The piece itself is more consistently inspired than the other two concertos (Nos. 1 and 4)  presented Friday evening in Hilbert Circle Theatre. Ohlsson was scrupulously attuned to what was going on, or was about to happen, in the orchestra. Introducing the second theme of the first movement, for example, he used a very dry touch that almost seemed to promise: "You are about to hear castanets playing the same rhythm." And then you did. Furthermore, the way Ohlsson moved into the rapid passagework that climaxes the first movement had an uncommon blend of  grace and drive.

The variations of the second movement elaborated upon the memorable theme patiently, with a delicate rubato feeling between the piano and the accompaniment. The finale was rhythmically acute from all forces and featured some fine string tone in the lovely second theme. Its sudden interruption by the piano with "a quietly grotesque passage" — "locus classicus of Prokofiev's habit of 'stepping on the throat of his own song'" — here did not seem so drastic or bizarre as Alan Frank's description implies. Ohlsson treated its surprising quality tenderly, as if Prokofiev were simply stepping back from his wonderful melody to take stock before resuming the argument that brings the concerto to a spectacular conclusion.

Called back for an encore, Ohlsson apologized for not being able to offer anything else by Prokofiev except a piece that lasts 35 minutes (I wonder what that would be?), so he turned to Chopin: As he did four years ago in an ISO appearance, he offered an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2.  He filled the piece with many marvels, not all of which would be welcome to encounter many more times. It was certainly no cookie-cutter version, and he deserves credit for that.

Alon Goldstein presented the best possible case for two Prokofiev concertos
The concert's first half featured Alon Goldstein as soloist, starting with Concerto No 1 in D-flat major, op. 10.  Goldstein played like a Prokofiev specialist, which is not to say he might not be as satisfactory in other music. It's just that he seemed fully imbued with the Prokofiev spirit both here and in the Concerto No. 4 in B major, a work for the left hand alone that never found favor with the pianist who commissioned it, Paul Wittgenstein.

I love the succinctness with which Grove's Dictionary introduces its Prokofiev entry: "He established himself as a composer of heavily ironic, often wilful and unconventional music in the last years of tsarist Russia." Those qualities are amply evident in the 1912 D-flat major concerto. There is ample flair in the solo part, indicative of the composer's breezy self-confidence as a performer. The second movement opens with a gossamer clarinet solo and other nice touches, but turns into something too insistent, with a heavy climax. The finale includes a perky march, which might fit the description "heavily ironic."
Anna Vinnitskaya is the ISO's third featured piano soloist this weekend.

Yet Prokofiev's mood in the third-movement march strikes me as largely blithe and cheeky, typical of what the smartest kid in the class might turn out to show he could toss off a march as a way to set up a climax. His younger contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich, more under the thumb of the Soviet regime, indulged in more savage irony in his marches.

The left-hand concerto, with Prokofiev well-established internationally by 1931, seems more gratuitously exhibitionistic. Played with commendable flair and commitment by Goldstein, the performance survived rather loose coordination early in the first movement. Once it jelled, there was plenty of opportunity to note that the work shows Prokofiev as being more self-involved in his cleverness than usual: the passage in the piano's bass register underlined by the bass drum, for example. 

The lyricism of the second movement became pretty heavy. When he was less inspired, Prokofiev brought forth a lyrical manner that seems labored even when it is gentle. The third and fourth movements amounted to a fillip of virtuosity and panache in a work perhaps best appreciated by committed Prokofiev fans. 

The rest of this weekend's concerts bring back Goldstein for the Fourth,  Ohlsson for the Third and Fifth, and introduce Anna Vinnitskaya in two performances of the Second. Today's concert will be launched with Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. Exact schedules can be found on the symphony's website.

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