Entire cycles of symphonies, quartets, and concertos have become all the rage in our Digital Age’s completionist society. We are accustomed to watching an entire television series over a long weekend and to stockpiling definitive collections of our favorite albums. Therefore, it is completely natural to apply the same logic to our concert-going experiences. Valery Gergiev led an athletic pilgrimage through composer-pianist Sergei Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, in numerical order, with the musicians of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and five distinguished soloists at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; a testament not only to great keyboard playing, but also to the Mariinsky Orchestra’s focus and endurance.

Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

It’s easy to write off a composer’s “first attempt” as a juvenile or pastiche, but Prokofiev’s own pianistic virtuosity at the age of 21 set a bar high for the demanding nature of his First Concerto (1912) and those that followed. Tchaikovsky Silver-medalist George Li gave a raucous performance of the flamboyant First, hammering the dynamic bulges of the opening statement and carefully effectuating Prokofiev’s elaborate frills. Gergiev kept the orchestra under strict restraint throughout the evening, and this allowed each solo voice to speak with clarity. It is important to note that from an American perspective, the age of the musicians was distinctly perceivable since the average age of the Mariinsky’s musicians seemed to be around 30 years old, and many of the musicians looked like conservatory-age students.

The Second Concerto, interpreted by performer-teacher Alexander Toradze, was lost and rewritten after baffling audiences at its first performance. The solo piano begins with an icy melody, evocative of Prokofiev’s predecessors and contemporaries – Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and Liadov; however, spasmodic octave-jumping, chromatic melodies and fancy glissandi make the work unique. Toradze is no stranger to Prokofiev’s concertos, having recorded the entire cycle with Gergiev, and his interpretation of the Second is absorbing. The most interesting aspect of Toradze’s performance was the amount of silence he allowed during pauses, specifically in the enormous cadenza; where an eager pianist would rush to the highlights, Toradze kept the listener addicted to the tantalizing sensation.

Daniil Trifonov undoubtedly received the most energy from the audience, and he was able to channel it through Prokofiev’s Third – most fashionable concerto, perfectly sandwiched between two intermissions. The Third immediately impressed audiences at its Chicago Symphony première and quickly solidified its place in the repertoire. The excitement for Trifonov is by no means just hype. Everything about his piano technique and stage presence is fascinating; his fingerwork is exact and balanced, while his demeanor is bold yet humble. Among surely countless idiosyncrasies, Trifonov occasionally employed a bass-to-treble ascending chord technique where he formed his left hand into a C-shape with the thumb gliding underneath the base of the keyboard, while the right hand floated above the keys, dropping chords in alternating succession. One could truly observe Trifonov’s performance a thousand times and always discover something new.

Prokofiev premiered all of his concertos from the piano except the Fourth, which was commissioned by war-era pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose battlefield injury left him with only one arm. Prokofiev’s commission was overshadowed by more-often-performed works by Ravel, Strauss and Britten, but there's no denying the Fourth should be raised to the same prominence. Russian-born pianist Sergei Redkin performed the concerto with ease, hopping from one end of the piano to the other and playfully planting the last note on his right hand. Since the work is so unfamiliar to most listeners, BAM-goers prematurely perceived the conclusion and burst into conclusive applause one movement too soon, lightheartedly validating Prokofiev’s overall sarcastic mood. Unfortunately for Prokofiev, Wittgenstein did not understand the concerto’s sarcasm, or rather “inner logic”, and it remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime.

The Fifth Concerto exhibits Prokofiev's mature voice, and pianist Sergei Babayan, also Trifonov's teacher, brought Prokofiev’s kittenish neoclassicism to life. Babayan brought a gleeful approach that is so essential to this concerto of five short movements, and he demonstrated a masterful understanding of Prokofiev’s intention. At this point in the concert, however, there were noticeable pitch discrepancies overall and visible unrest in the wind section in particular, which is very unusual for this orchestra. Babayan concluded the concert with an encore of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives No. 10, marked Ridicolosamente. Prokofiev lived the last 20 years of his life without writing a piano concerto and focused instead on large-scale orchestral works.

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