The idea of presenting all five Prokofiev piano concertos in a single evening is not entirely new. Conductor Valery Gergiev did exactly that at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg two years ago. His return to the Proms with the same ambitious programme offered a rare opportunity to assess the output of this popular but still enigmatic composer.
Listening to each of the five concertos confirmed their similarities. What came across most was their showiness, technical complexity and self-conscious rebelliousness. Take the First Piano Concerto, for example. Prokofiev wrote it in 1911-12 while still a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory and deliberately set out to annoy his teachers. It is dominated by a grandiose theme cloned from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and moves through eleven brilliant but loosely connected sections. Daniil Trifonov was the ideal exponent. Aged only twenty four (three years older than Prokofiev when he finished the concerto), Trifonov had absolute mastery over the keyboard, seemingly impervious to the score’s hair-raising demands. But he also displayed sensibility during the concerto’s (admittedly few) reflective moments. These facets again came to the fore during the more mature Piano Concerto No. 3 (1917-21). Cast in a more conventional three-movement mould, it passes through a greater variety of moods, but ends with the composer’s trademark acrobatics.
Sergei Babayan – Trifonov’s teacher at the Cleveland Institute – took to the stage for Prokofiev’s flashy Piano Concerto No. 2 (1912-13). As with the First, this was the enfant terrible’s chance to show off his own virtuosity, and also to try and top Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, which had received its Russian premiere in 1910. Babayan’s take on the work was more Romantic than Modernist. He dwelt dreamily on the work’s more sedate passages, and even the faster sections felt more languorous than the markings suggest. This sense of quiet reflection was further picked up in the Fifth Piano Concerto. Dating from 1932 and Prokofiev’s final hurrah before giving up his career as a concert pianist and returning to the Soviet Union, it contains the usual brilliant touches, but points to a more lyrical, less complex musical language, with an unmistakably French touch – not least in the expansive fourth-movement Larghetto, which recalls the central Adagio of Ravel’s Piano Concerto (also premiered in 1932).
The odd concerto out was the Fourth, which received its Proms premiere, despite having been completed in 1931. Written for the left hand, it was composed for World War I veteran Paul Wittgenstein, who, according to Prokofiev himself, claimed not to understand it and never played it. Indeed, the work did not get a hearing until 1956, three years after the composer’s death. Although lyrical, even balletic, in parts, the concerto still bears the hallmarks of Prokofiev’s earlier concerto writing – technical acrobatics and edgy, shifting tempos. The orchestration is simpler and sparer, leaving the pianist more exposed. Alexei Volodin made his sole appearance with this work, exploring its darker corners with clarity and feeling. All three soloists had the benefit of Valery Gergiev’s oversight, experience and instinctive feel for this music. His ability to get the very best out of the LSO players made this marathon concert a fitting end to his tenure as principal conductor.