March 13, 2014


Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Christus am Ölberge. Maria Venuti, soprano; Keith Lewis, tenor; Michel Brodard, bass; Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Hänssler Classic. $14.99.

     No composer is 100% inspired 100% of the time – not even Mozart, although some might argue that he is the exception that proves (that is, tests) the rule. Even when creating works they intend to perform themselves, composers do not always produce music at the highest level of which they are capable. And that is generally accepted as the situation when it comes to Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, all written by 1932 and all intended by the composer for his own use. The consensus opinion is that Concerto No. 2 is far and away the best of the bunch, with No. 1 being a bit of a youthful extravagance and the last three concertos being complex but not up to the standards of the Second. Interestingly, though, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who made his concerto debut playing Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1, sees the works differently – and his new recording for Chandos, with the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda providing excellent, supple accompaniment, benefits enormously from Bavouzet’s determination not to regard any of these works as inferior to the others. Indeed, Bavouzet is particularly fond of No. 5, a thorny and rarely heard concerto filled with originality and surprises, but one without any particular tunefulness (despite its moving slow movement) and therefore a difficult one for audiences. Bavouzet plays it here with considerable conviction and attentiveness to its structure, bringing out its lyrical elements – especially in the finale – while never shortchanging its considerable technical difficulties. Similarly, in the other rarely played concerto, No. 4 – which Bavouzet admits finding less than entirely congenial – the pianist uses his own experience with focal dystonia (the same debilitating hand condition that afflicted Leon Fleisher for decades) to help him understand and appreciate this work, which was written for the left hand only. The concerto was created for the famed virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost an arm in World War I and commissioned not only Prokofiev’s left-hand concerto but also Ravel’s far more famous work, among others. Wittgenstein never played the Prokofiev concerto, saying he did not understand it, but Bavouzet clearly does have insight into what Prokofiev did here, and his carefully modulated performance makes as strong a case for this work as it is likely to get.  The first three concertos also come across splendidly. The ebullient No. 1, which runs  only 15 minutes, sounds like juvenilia but not like a throwaway here, its one tragic-sounding theme overbalanced by its generally upbeat mood, into which Bavouzet enters fully. No. 3, also a bright work – and one that looks ahead in its thematic diversity to No. 5 – is especially noteworthy for its second-movement variations on an odd little gavotte theme, which Bavouzet handles with aplomb. And No. 2, best-known of the concertos and the one that remained closest to Prokofiev himself, gets a full-blown, soulful and very piano-centric performance here, the gigantic first-movement cadenza flowing very impressively and the still-modern-sounding Intermezzo getting top-flight playing not only from piano and tuba but also from the rest of the orchestra. Whether Prokofiev’s five piano concertos are all equally inspired is a matter of debate, but one thing is certain: they were inspired by different circumstances, and therefore require highly individual handling by performers who realize how their varying styles fit into the Prokofiev oeuvre as a whole. Bavouzet and Noseda make find advocates of these works, both separately and together.

     It is generally accepted that the inspiration level of Beethoven’s sole oratorio, Christus am Ölberge (“Christ on the Mount of Olives”), is comparatively low, but this is one of those works – Sir Arthur Sullivan’s opera Ivanhoe is another – that is considerably better when approached with an open mind and without regard to what “everyone knows” about it. Open-mindedness is clearly what underlies the very fine performance led by Helmuth Rilling in 1994 and now re-released on the Hänssler Classic label. Yes, the text of Christus am Ölberge is poor, as Beethoven himself acknowledged; but the composer strongly resisted the wholesale changes to it that his publisher wanted, and this performance shows the wisdom of Beethoven’s position. The words here matter less than the dramatic setting that Beethoven gives them, and indeed the piece comes across more as a drama, nearly a theatrical one, than as a traditional oratorio. Despite the relatively late opus number, this is an early work, dating to 1803, and this explains some of its infelicities, particularly in the vocal writing. But the solo passages for Jesus (the tenor role), a seraph (soprano) and Peter (bass) are by no means poor; they are simply less involving and less dramatic than the choral sections and the surrounding orchestral texture. In fact, the arias for Jesus go a long way toward humanizing him, and the work as a whole is less staid and standoffish than it is sometimes accused of being. Part of its effectiveness in this recording comes from how well Rilling handles the ensembles he founded, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, and how adeptly the three soloists perform individually and in contrast to the chorus. No, Christus am Ölberge is not at the level of much-later Beethoven vocal music, such as the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, but it is unfair to compare this youthful and text-hampered work to the much later and undeniably greater ones. And it is worth pointing out that the oratorio is significantly more engaging than some of Beethoven’s later vocal creations, such as the occasional cantata from 1814, Der glorreiche Augenblick. Indeed, Christus am Ölberge is effectively expressive in many passages and effectively dramatic in many more, and if it is unlikely ever to become one of Beethoven’s most-popular compositions, it certainly deserves to be heard much more often than it typically is – provided it is performed with as much sensitivity and understanding as it receives here.

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