What makes a great performance of Prokofiev’s third concerto?

The key to making Prokofiev’s third piano concerto sound great is to treat the score with respect.  Allow the detail and beauty of the score to be heard. Excessive speed and showmanship produces a shallow and one-dimensional performance. Too many pianists sound like this. For me, an ideal performance should reflect the exceptional balance of the three movements – each taking about 10 minutes.

Getting the balance right – how it feels performing vs how it actually sounds

What feels good physically to play on a piano is not necessarily good to listen to.

8 requirements for making a great recording of Prokofiev 3.

  1. Having the technique to play clearly, strongly and accurately. Having a wide hand stretch is an advantage.
  2. No scrappy playing due to excessive movement or showmanship 
  3. Keeping in precise rhythmic control – not getting ahead of the beat.
  4. Not rushing over the detail in the orchestration or missing out details or harmony notes. Work with a great conductor, the orchestra is just as important!
  5. Not using excessive speed as your gimmick.
  6. Not exaggerating the percussive or grotesque character already present in the music. Not producing an unnecessarily ugly tone. Prokofiev’s own playing (like Bartok’s) was not excessively percussive.
  7. Achieving an ideal balance between the soloist and orchestra with a realistic and beautiful recorded sound.
  8. Don’t leave lots of wrong notes in the recording! Edit them out!

The best recordings of Prokofiev’s third piano concerto

I should preface this by saying I doubt there are many people who have heard more recordings and YouTube performances of the Prokofiev third concerto than me. I know the score inside out and have played the concerto since I was 14. I would like to think my opinions are more valid than many critics and academics who do not appreciate the full potential of this concerto. But these are just my opinions.

Best overall recording

The most beautiful and satisfying overall recording I have ever heard is by Jon Kimura Parker with Andre Previn conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the Telarc label. It is a digital recording made in 1986 and the sound is exceptionally beautiful. Kimura Parker has the control, virtuosity and beauty of tone to be in total command of the music and he and Andre Previn produce a sublime interpretation. They treat the music with the respect and imagination it deserves without any distortion or ego. The piano may have been recorded more clearly in the most spectacular effect 4 pages from the end of the orchestral score, but this is a minor quibble. It is a recording that never sounds rushed and always sounds beautiful.

Other good recordings

It is hard to recommend a perfect overall recording as such.  There are great moments in many recordings and here are some of the best.

Huracio Gutierrez produced a fine sounding account on Chandos with Neeme Jarvi conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The sound is reverberant and lush and it sways me away from any inconsistencies in the performance. Their account of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto on the same CD is perhaps the best digital recording of the work.

Yvgeny Kissin has three recordings of the work on disc. The first is a live performance given at the age of 14, the second on Deutsche Grammaphon with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and his most recent on EMI with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia. Kissin is outstanding performing the concerto and his most recent version could have been a top recommendation but for the over compressed orchestral sound. It sounds artificial and lifeless. There is more realism and depth to the sound of his recording with Abbado on DG, but the the orchestral playing is disappointing considering the calibre of the conductor.

Leif Ove Andsnes is an outstanding player of the concerto. Having performed it in the final of the European Young Musician Final in 1987 early in his career, he recorded it with Ole Kristian Ruud and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on the Simax label of Norway. It does not quite capture the brilliance of his live performances like this one posted on YouTube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJHN39UVa4w

Cecile Ousett made a fine early digital recording with Rudolf Barshai and the Bournemouth SO on EMI. She has the necessary power and technique needed to tackle more physical parts of the concerto.

Prokofiev recorded his own performance of the third piano concerto in 1932 with Piero Copploa and the LSO. Prokofiev rushes through his performance in a way that is reminiscent of Rachmaninoff rushing through his third piano concerto recording. Whether these great composers felt compelled to show off their pianistic skills or whether the limited time available on each side of the 78 record influenced these speeds we will never know for sure. I do not understand these rushed tempi. They play at times as though the detail and beauty in the score meant nothing, almost as if they are bored.

I hear more in these concertos and I think most good musicians would feel the same looking at the score. Prokofiev’s own recording is a fascinating document. It is interesting how at the end of the concerto Prokofiev slows down the tempo for his most spectacular effect. As with his recordings of solo piano works, Prokofiev’s approach to tempo is surprisingly flexible for a composer who pioneered the dry motor rhythm approach to piano writing in the 20th century.

It is a shame Sviatoslav Richter only recorded concertos 1 and 5 but we do have Emil Gilels’ classic recording with Kondrashin and the USSR Radio SO. This could be the first important representative recording.

Martha Argerich has performed the concerto on countless occasions and has a long association with it. Her performances can come across as being flashy, eccentric or uninvolved at times. Her acclaimed 1967 analogue recording has dated in its sound quality. I have never liked it, it sounds lightweight and often rushed. I prefer her more recent digital recording on EMI with Charles Dutoit which has a richer sound with a less idiosyncratic performance.

Worth a listen:

Kun-Woo Paik on Naxos, Van Cliburn on RCA, Gary Graffman on Columbian Masterworks (though the coda to the last movement is a little choppy and pedestrian in tempo), Janis Vakerelis on RPO records, Nikolai Petrov on Melodia, Jorge Bolet.

Alexander Toradze’s recording with Valery Geriev and the Marinsky Theatre Orchestra on Phillips is a lot better than I feared after hearing his live performances. The perversities in his interpretation and ugliness of his sharp percussive tone seemed to be have been tamed on his recording, though they are not altogether absent.

Some other recordings

Vladmir Ashkenazy’s recording with Previn is a light and choppy reading of the work which disappointed me. Ashkenazy is one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. His accomplishments speak for themesleves and I have many favourite recordings by him. His recording of Prokofiev’s first concerto is one of the best and concertos 2, 4 and 5 are a lot better than the third in my opinion.

Sir Simon Rattle commented that no pianist had been technically so on top of the concerto as Lang Lang in their recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. That could be true but his recording can feel like a speed competition which spoils the integrity of the music.

Recent new recordings

There have been a plethora of new recordings in recent years. They are all of a high standard technically but there is not one that stands above any other.

Some of the pianists include: Nikolai Lugansky, Behzod Abduraimov, Simon Trpceski, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Freddy Kempf,

Recordings to avoid

Vladimir Krainev’s recording with Kitaneko on Erato is botched right at the end of the concerto. Why did they not do another take?

Dimitri Alexeev’s recording on EMI is rather aggressive and scrappy at it’s conclusion. Oli Mustonen is, as ever, a law unto himself and won’t to many people’s liking.