Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 2. Lang Lang, piano; Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic.  Sony 88883732252.

Sony’s release of the Prokofiev and Bartok piano concertos is these days kind of a quaint, old-fashioned, and highly welcome throwback. It’s a studio recording featuring a superstar soloist, a superstar conductor, a superstar orchestra, and a pair of superstar composers. It’s the sort of thing the big record companies used to produce almost on a monthly basis but now appear only in a blue moon. Economic conditions being what they are, about the only way to put together a star-studded cast is to record live, something that doesn’t always favor the best-sounding album. Whether the listener actually likes the new Sony disc seems almost beside the point; buyers need to prove to the record companies that there is still a profitable market for such items.

The superstar soloist is the relatively young Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang, possibly the most well-known young pianist on the world stage today. Although Lang Lang has never impressed me as much as he has other people with his up-and-down, sometimes bland, sometimes mannered, sometimes exaggerated readings, there is no question he has the measure of the Prokofiev and Bartok pieces on this disc. The superstar conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, a man whose work seems to me a little less energetic and electric than it once did but whose maturity and close attention to detail still produce music worthy of hearing. The superstar orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble beyond reproach that continues to dazzle the listener with its rich, lustrous perfection. And the superstar composers are Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Bela Bartok (1881-1945), two of the most-prominent innovators of the twentieth century.

The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 comes up first, and the performers do their best job with it. The composer completed it in 1921 from sketches he began in 1913. Of his five completed piano concertos, the Third is among the most lyrical and melodic, doubtless contributing to its popularity. It begins slowly and softly, quickly building up a head of steam with the piano’s entry and becoming ever more rhapsodic and tempestuous through its three movements. If I still prefer Martha Argerich’s performance with Claudio Abbado (DG) and Byron Janis’s with Kiril Kondrashin (Mercury) for their greater involvement and dynamism, Lang Lang’s treatment of the work is, nevertheless, refreshing.

The concerto gets off to an easygoing start but quickly picks up a head of steam, which Lang Lang carries out admirably. While he seems a little more cautious with it than some musicians, it blends nicely with the lyricism that comes after it. Then, too, we can probably thank Maestro Rattle for the careful, meticulously warm yet detailed accompaniment. The Prokofiev Third is, after all, one of those concertos where the orchestra plays almost as big a part as the soloist. I enjoyed Lang Lang's virtuosic skills quite a bit here, even if he doesn't seem as attuned to the work's more playful passages as he could be. Still, the finger work is so dazzling, one can't argue with the results.

The work's second-movement theme and variations sounds particularly pleasing, Lang Lang and Rattle both taking their time to develop the music. It's nicely airy and ethereal in the outer sections and properly rambunctious in the faster segments. Maybe Lang Lang approaches it a bit more Romantically than some other pianists, but it's an effective, seductive Romanticism, punctuated as it ought to be with outbursts of modern dissonance.

In the final Allegro Lang Lang is at his best, playfully dancing along on the keyboard while the Berlin orchestra bounces along in glorious partnership. This is the Prokofiev that always comes to mind when I think about the man's music. It is energetic, exuberant, witty, rhythmic, poetic, rhapsodic, clearly into the twentieth century yet easily accessible. And Lang Lang, Rattle, and the Berliners give us the best of everything.

The second selection on the program is Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which doesn’t come off quite as well as the Prokofiev but is still quite good. In the Bartok, Lang Lang shows off his technical dexterity to even greater fashion than in the Prokofiev, possibly because the work demands it. The pianist's hands are ever on the move; I don't think there's a moment in the opening movement that the soloist is at rest. It's also a little harder to come to grips with Bartok's pulsing rhythms and relentless forward drive than it was with Prokofiev's more-forgiving, more melodic concerto. So if Lang Lang seems a bit more distant to me in the Bartok, it's probably not the pianist's fault so much as it is the composer's.

A brief Presto interrupts the long, slow, sweeping second-movement Adagio before it settles back into its peculiar languor. Its opening passages allow the soloist to rest his fingers for a minute, and then Lang Lang reenters the scene on a quietly poetic note. He is almost eerily plaintive in these parts and most effective.

The concerto's Allegro molto takes it out in a blaze of glory, with first Rattle and his players and then Lang Lang leading the charge. It makes a fitting conclusion for a fiery yet well-tempered program.  The album deserves attention.

Producer Christoph Franke and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music in February and April of 2013 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. We hear good depth to the orchestra, a good ambient bloom to the hall, a good breadth to the image, and a good integration of the piano and orchestra. The dynamic range is wide, the bass and treble strong, and the impact more than adequate. However, it's not one of those recordings where the sonics knock you out. It's much more natural than that, especially if you set the playback at an appropriate level for maybe a tenth row center seat. Then, the sound is really quite impressive, the recording one of the best from the Berlin Philharmonic I've ever heard; and it's got a most realistic piano sound, too, not overly close or excessively distant. Although the sound doesn't display the kind of transparency we hear on some audiophile recordings, it's hard to fault Sony's work on any count, it's so lifelike.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa