Last week, Leif Ove Andsnes performed all five Beethoven piano concertos over three evenings at the Proms. Valery Gergiev must chuckle at such lack of ambition! Instead, he and the London Symphony Orchestra launched their own marathon: all five Prokofiev piano concertos… in a single evening. Granted, soloist duties were shared by three pianists – well, two and a half considering only Alexei Volodin’s left hand was required for the Fourth – but orchestral contributions were truly heroic. Both Volodin and Sergei Babayan were making their Proms debut, but it was Babayan’s star pupil, Daniil Trifonov, who stole the show.

Daniil Trifonov © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniil Trifonov
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

What on paper might have looked like a circus act – wheeling out soloist after soloist to plough through Prokofiev’s dense writing in a pianistic tag-team – turned out to be a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast. Performed chronologically, each concerto revealed its individual character: the First, with its near-parody of Tchaikovsky; the grotesque and brutal Second; the dreamy, balletic mood of the Third. The lesser-known Fourth, composed for Paul Wittgenstein, who declined to play it, is cool and neoclassical in style, while the equally neglected Fifth is full of boisterous energy and wit.

Our three pianists also displayed very different temperaments and techniques. Trifonov was helped by performing the two better-known concertos – the First and Third – but his playing was utterly remarkable nonetheless. Crouching low, his nose almost brushing the keys, Trifonov’s poise and delicacy meant that the First sparkled and glittered, but never harshly or coldly. The central variation in the Third’s middle movement was beautifully shaped; poetry cascaded from Trifonov’s fingers, pearly rivulets of sound.

Sergei Babayan © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sergei Babayan
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Babayan, Trifonov’s teacher since 2009, shares much of his pupil’s sensitivity of approach. Much shorter and stockier of build, he has the muscular heft to tackle the Second’s thrusting fistfuls of chords and epic solo paragraphs, yet he caressed the opening soliloquy most gently. The moto perpetuo Scherzo, with its 1504 continuous semiquavers for the pianist, was dashed off effortlessly, while the Bydło-like progress of the Intermezzo was decorated by quirky cross-hand passages and glissandos. Punchy playing also characterised Babayan’s interpretation of the Fifth.

Given just the one concerto – the Fourth, composed for the left-hand – Volodin had less opportunity to shine. It isn’t as flashy as Prokofiev’s other concertos, almost Mozartian in scale and delicacy, yet Volodin played up its impish manner. Quite how he essayed the witty Vivace finale with just one hand is anyone’s guess – it fizzed and frothed through its mere 90 seconds. Whilst it was instructive – and logical – to sequence the concertos chronologically, the Fourth and Fifth aren’t as fine works as the Third. After Trifonov’s dazzling pianism, the later concertos (both played here for the first time at the Proms) had the slightest touch of anti-climax to them.

Alexei Volodin © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alexei Volodin
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Armed with his trusty toothpick, Gergiev guided his tireless LSO through the evening, neither conductor nor orchestra flagging in energy. Despite the familiar grunts and flurry of fingers, there’s enormous skill in the way Gergiev balances his forces: brass have just enough bite, string pizzicatos have the requisite deftness. The three soloists were never drowned out, despite the decibels Prokofiev demands in some of his more ear-shattering passages. The strings glowed in the gorgeous opening to the Third Concerto, its yearning themes reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, yet with just enough balsamic to maintain a piquancy to orchestral colour. The LSO’s woodwind section is beyond compare: oily clarinets, glistening flutes, lugubrious bassoons. Olivier Stankiewicz, in his first concert as principal oboe, impressed with his witty, castanet-accompanied interjections in the Third. Few conductors understand Prokofiev’s music as deeply as Gergiev, so able to negotiate the swift mood changes from mercurial wit to crushing brutality and back again.

What these performances proved, beyond doubt, is that Prokofiev is not all about steel fingers and iron wrists… there’s considerable tenderness and sensitivity to his writing, found in abundance in these varied, lively performances.