This concert should have been a joy from start to finish, with arch orchestral lollipops from the Russian master of sarcasm sandwiching his own glittering 3rd Piano Concerto.
Despite an interstellar cast of Charles Dutoit and Martha Argerich, there was something strangely missing from Prokofiev himself.
The Love of Three Oranges Suite begins with inventive ideas spilling out over the piece’s own framework, brimming with ribald theatricality in melody and orchestration. Dutoit added to the theatricality by hamming it up with some hilarious circus muscleman gestures to fire up the timpani. Written into the score are various dazzling contrasts of texture that were wonderfully exaggerated by Dutoit, as well as hairpin crescendos and decrescendos. The final two numbers of the Suite seemed more than a little perfunctory and forced; time for a heartfelt string number (The Prince and the Princess), or time for a rocketing chase scene (The Escape).
After the brusque mini-introduction from the RPO Martha Argerich pounced onto the keyboard with ferocity for Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, dominating the hall with a claw-hammer tone. This was wonderful for those who’d come to hear the legendary pianist, but it had the effect of drowning the strings, who sounded anaemic and bullied under her weight. Argerich’s unusually placed accents were fascinating, and always with a natural and direct understanding of Prokofiev’s personality and vision. In the second movement Argerich’s tone softened, sounding as dejected and crestfallen as the music is written, and no longer dominating the overall picture.
There were some fantastic moments of interweaving and commentary from the woodwind and strings, as the solo piano part naively dwelled on a simple phrase, but unfortunately there are so many shamelessly feeble and flash moments in the piano writing in the third movement that the piece as a whole seems superficial in comparison to Prokofiev’s own 2nd or 5th Concertos. At the finale the usually jaw-dropping mutated octaves in the piano weren’t as thrilling or intense as the massive ovation suggested, although it did the trick of squeezing two encores out of Argerich.
The Romeo and Juliet excerpts had a similarly early peak to The Love of three Oranges Suite – unbelievable moments of originality and dynamism to begin with, but ideas became more and more conservative and simple. Entire sections were riddled with uniform and dutiful ideas as if Prokofiev wanted to write ballet music that would be recognised as such, instead of interpreting Shakespeare from his own unique perspective.
Dutoit did bring out some of that uniqueness, especially in what was originally Juliet’s Bedroom Scene, illustrating her naivety and innocence by emphasising the glissandi in the violas to magical effect. Double basses and percussion were fantastic throughout, and especially urgent at the Death of Tybalt scene, during Prokofiev’s all too rare return to his neurotic, daring and muscular self.