by Sam Juliano
Pianist Vladimir Feltsman bolted out onto the stage six times after Monday night’s all-Prokofiev venue at Avery Fisher Hall to acknowledge a cheering sold-out throng, who were wildly enthusiastic over his work on the”Piano Concerto No. 2.” The rhapsodic and galvanizing virtuoso turn dazzled concert goers with it’s breathtaking perpetual motion and march-like intensity in a work that is probably three times as difficult to negotiate as Sergei Rachmaninoff’s beloved “Second Piano Concerto,” a perennial concert favorite. Feltsman, who left Russia in 1987, and became an American citizen in 1987, beamed as he was handed a bouquet of flowers, while being flanked by London Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev, the world’s foremost Prokofiev interpreter. It is purportedly a rule that any pianist who successfully negotiates this (one of most difficult of all piano concertos) is entitled to win delirious applause.
The “Piano Concerto No 2” is laden with dissonances and aggressive tempos, yet there’s no denying it’s breathtaking music that builds in intensity. With Feltsman running his hands back and forth across the piano keyboard like a magician, Gergiev led the Londoners in an inspired reading which immediately shifts into gear in the lengthy first movement cadenza, but climaxes in the rather relentless final movement, the “Scherzo,” which is a relentless tour de force of perpetual motion. The music is fierce and almost barbarous, and the fact that Prokofiev was able to transcribe this to a piano concerto, rather than a symphony is musically remarkable. The moody, almost sinister sound of the music echoes his celebrated contemporary, Dimitri Shostakovich, whose music is dominated by long somber and ominous discordances.
The First Symphony, also known as “The Classical” is often referred to by musicologists as a parody of the classical style, but you’d never known this by the sincerity and effervescent final movement with its subtle harmonic twists and clever musical phrasings. It’s true that this symphony employs melodies, forms and rhythms that are associated with the classical tradition, but Prokofiev took these in another direction with his own “moderations.” Yet, it seems that below the surface, the essence of the classical symphony is intact. The first part of the piece recalls the melodic perfection of Haydn, but this quickly dissipates into a purposeful (seemingly) off-key section that may come off as ethereal or even with a touch of humor.
The lyrical melody typically appears in the slow movement, and while it isn’t as beautiful as similar movements from Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff in their symphonic works, it is nonetheless striking in its serenity and harmonic fervor. It’s definitely Prokofiev’s most renowned symphonic work, even if some of the later works may have shown him more at the height of his composing prowess.
Such a work was his Sixth Symphony (Prokofiev wrote seven) which seems to open on a landscape of somber pastoral music, the militant sound of trumpets, and a funeral cavalcade, all of which are eventually informed by the lovely melody launched by the English horn and what appeared to be violins or violas. Of course such an irresistible combination of these instruments were the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s sublime Romeo and Juliet Overture. The Second Movement brings forth “crying” sounds of angst which eventually yield to a more measured horn solo, and then back to the sounds of anguish, with a preponderance of woodwinds. There is a restless, foreboding mood in this movement, which at least is countered by the optimism in the third and final movement of the 23 minute work. There is unadulterated joy in the opening, even if this carefree mood has an underpinning of tension and uncertainty. This sense of foreboding is confirmed by the expeditious finale, which is inordinately harsh and dissonant. Some of the abrupt musically clashing is violent, as the work was composed at the end of World War II and Prokofiev wanted to allude to the victory won despite the massive death and destruction. The dark and melancholy Russian sensibility, however, was woven into the fabric of much of his music however, much like Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ Symphony No. 6, and just about all of Rachmaninoff, much of Schostakovich and Mussorgsky.
Maestro Gergiev, who over the last few years conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in staging of Prokofiev’s War and Peace and The Gambler (both attended by this reviewer) approaches this composer as a countryman who understands the style and the emotions involved in both the composer’s tortured wartime mind and in the Russian musical tradition, which Gergiev studied intensely in his conservatory education. Hence, his startling insights into these works results in resplendent readings, undoubtedly enhanced by a proper navigation of some Soviet musical “color” which may influence tempo and emphasis. His guidance of the renowned London orchestra has made them more adept at interpreting this quintessentially Russian composer. Gergiev has long conducted Prokofiev’s operas and ballets at the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg to universal acclaim.
The three encores was testimony to Mr. Gergiev’s mastery of this adventurous musical genius at home and on the international stage, and Monday’s results were no less than electrifying for this tireless champion, his distinguished pianist and the exalted company he has helped to mold.
Note: I attended Monday evening’s (Match 23) all-Prokofiev venue at Avery Fisher Hall all by my lonesome in Lincoln Center. It was the first of an eight-day treatment of the composer’s symphonies and concertos. I will also be attending this coming Monday’s (March 30) concert of two more of his symphonies and a violin concerto. I found parking immediately, and spent time checking out brochures and enjoying (or wolfing down?) a turkey panini in a nearby sandwich shop.