The must-hear of the Covid year

The must-hear of the Covid year


norman lebrecht

November 15, 2020

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

The second piano concerto by Sergei Prokofiev was the least performed of the five until Evgeny Kissin came along a decade ago and showed it was not only playable but pleasant. At this early stage in his emergence – the opus number is in the low teens – Prokofiev was more inclined to be rebarbative than agreeable. But once Kissin stripped off the barbed wire, an underlying soft centre was exposed and other pianists piled in to make the once-deterrent concerto practically an audience draw. The Vienna Philharmonic were touring it only this week in Japan.

Of the half-dozen interpretations I have heard…

Read on here.

And here.

In The Critic here.

In Spanish here.


  • Joel stein says:

    I doubt that the second piano concerto was less performed than no. 4. I heard it live decades ago by John. Browning and Malcolm Frager.

    • pjl says:

      agreed; I have only heard the 4th once in concert (Glasgow Lugansky) and it and the 5th are hardly ever programmed except when a cycle is done

    • David K. Nelson says:

      To make an assertion such as this – least performed of the five — one would have to not only engage in massive legwork to seek out orchestra programs and broadcasts from around the world since, well let’s be reasonable and say 1950, but also slog through endless issues of Penguin, Schwann, the various music and record review magazines, and so on. Was that really done or was this just thrown out at us?

      Speaking personally, based simply on concerto going, broadcast listening, and record review magazine reading, I’d hazard the guess (nothing more than that) that the Concerto No. 2 is probably behind only the evergreen No. 3 in performances and recordings. The 4th and 5th are fairly rare birds; the first is vastly entertaining and perhaps it should even be the most played of the five but that is just me talking.

      And before Kissin there was Leinsdorf’s ambitious Prokofiev cycle of symphonies and concertos on RCA Victor with John Browning and the cycles by Ashkenazy, Michel Béroff, Tacchino, Bronfman, and probably other worthies I have forgotten about. I also recall a powerhouse recording by Vladimir Feltsman. Collectors of old vinyl probably still cherish their Jorge Bolet recording with Thor Johnson and the Cincinnati Symphony for the old Remington label (I might be doing Remington a courtesy by referring to old vinyl – some of their surfaces sounded more like old linoleum).

    • William Safford says:

      Number 4 would also have been my guess. It is the only one that I have never heard live.

  • Paul Carlile says:

    Anyone who makes the Prok 2nd concerto “pleasant” has blundered, especially when one learns that the original version was composed in a dark mood in response to the suicide of a close friend. I doubt that Kissin would be much flattered by this claim. It remains one of the most strikingly groteske of his works, unsettled between dark lyricism and violent outbursts.
    Joel Stein (above), is correct; it has been played more often (tho not very) than the unloved no.4 (left hand). Thru the 1970s and 80s, i heard only Ashkenazy (once) and Shura Cherkassky (twice!). I had to wait for the early 2000’s for Volodos, altho i think i missed Lugansky at the Proms (?). These days , like Rach3, Prok2 has become fodder for young upstarts in all international paino competitions and is plo competently by newborn babies.
    I have some doubts about the current recording discussed; Trifonov has rarely been competent to play much of his recorded repertoire in public, but if stitched-together multi-takes are your thing, doubtless this will suffice for the undemanding listener.

    • M2N2K says:

      You are probably correct that “Trifonov has rarely been competent”. Usually in his live performances he is much better than that. For just one example that is relevant in this thread, he was absolutely outstanding when he played Prokofiev’s Second with us a few years ago – it was one of the finest interpretations of the piece that I had the pleasure of experiencing as a performer or a listener.

      • KH says:

        He might be great on that occasion, but I am quite often disappointed by his live recordings. “Incomplete preparation” is what comes to my mind more often than not when listening to him.

  • Fliszt says:

    George Bolet, Shura Cherkassky, Nicole Henriot-Shweitzer, John Browning and Malcolm Frager were early defenders of Prokofiev 2nd Concerto. Horatio Gutierrez and Alexander Toradze picked it up later, as did Ashkenazy. Kissin re-interpreted it, as he didn’t go at it with forceps as so many virtuosos are prone to do – rather, he took a lyrical approach, and he actually found some hitherto undiscovered music amidst all of that virtuosic noise. Not every pianist can play this piece, and not everyone wants to – nor needs to. One does wish that Martha had had a go at it…

    • Concertgoer says:

      Ashkenazy preceded Browning and Frager actually, recording it with Kondrashin (supposedly) in 1957 and with Bernstein definitely in 1958. He really loved the piece but by 1974 had developed all sorts of mannered ideas about it such that even Previn acquiesced in the dreadful reading in Decca’s cycle. Nor was Ashkenazy a strong enough conductor to succeed in the 2008 performances NL refers to. Gregiev/Toradze and Gergiev/Matsuev are electric, so it should be interesting to hear Gergiev/Trifonov.

  • Firing Back says:

    Re the review, Norman, I couldn’t disagree more. And, of course, building a musician up as you have in this case will inevitably lead to great disappointment, I fear.


  • Robert Holmén says:

    Just to put some pre-Kissin numbers to this, I downloaded a couple of League of American Orchestras Repertoire Reports and looked up Prokofiev piano concertos…

    2000-01 Season…
    1 program with No.1
    5 programs with No. 2
    3 programs with No. 3
    1 program with No. 5

    2001-02 Season…
    1 program with No.1
    6 programs with No. 2
    14 programs with No. 3
    1 program with No. 5

    Yes, I know the LoAO reports do not include all performances on the planet, but they are actual numbers from a representative sample of orchestral activity, rather than anecdotal memories.

  • Peter says:

    Belgo – Brazilian Eliane Rodrigues recorded all five concerti for Northern Flowers, with Eduard Serov and the St. Petersburg PhO.
    The second concerto appears now regularly during the finals of the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    I heard an astonishing performance of the Prokofiev second piano concerto given by a Juilliard sophomore back in the ’70s: Nicholas Smith. An amazing talent – I wonder what happened to him.

  • Martin Carpenter says:

    >>the least performed of the five

    Not true. Obviously #3 is the most frequent.
    I’d say roughly that #1 and #2 are joint second place
    And then WAY down in terms of frequency #4 and #5

    PS: what’s happened to your site ? Doesn’t seem to store old email addresses or allow thumbs up/down

  • esfir ross says:

    Maria Yudina played 2nd concerto, Ludmila Ginzburg was accompanied by her friend from Odessa Svyatoslav Richter for post-graduate exam at Moscow conservatory. SR never performed this concerto. Prokofiev performed 3rd concerto not successful in 1937 in USSR. He didn’t have technical abilities for 2nd concerto. I heard this concerto 1969 played by Estonian pianist first time. After him more pianist in USSR had in their repertoire

  • Roger Emanuels says:

    I loved Frager’s performance with Geoge Szell in the 1960s, and then wore out Frager’s recording with Rene Leibowitz. It’s still my favorite of the 5 concertos.

  • NYMike says:

    While just beginning her career, Yuja Wang played Prokofiev #2 with Philly – Dutoit conducting – years ago in Carnegie Hall. She brought down the house.

  • lost says:

    For me, Yundi Li and Seiji Ozawa’s version of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was the best. They recorded this album in 2007.

  • Herbert Pauls says:

    There is a powerful and colourful live performance by Zadel Skolovsky (with Munch) from 1948 that has floated around the internet for years. Massively conceived and executed. I just checked youtube, and behold, but if you are interested and diligent, a better quality remastering also exists.