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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.5 in G, Op.55 (world premiere)
Serge Prokofiev (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded Live, Berlin 31st October 1932
ARCHANGEL 0401 [25’31"] Superbudget price.

It is one of the myths surrounding Furtwängler that he conducted no new music. In the five years immediately preceding this performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto, Furtwängler gave premieres of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto (with the composer as soloist, and coupled with Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony) and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra; in the immediate years after the Prokofiev Furtwängler gave the premieres of Honegger’s Third Symphony and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. Throughout the 1920s he had given at least one ‘local’ premiere of a Mahler symphony – and often programmed that composer’s First, Second and Third symphonies. It may hardly seem eclectic by today’s standards – or even comparable to the Klemperer premieres of the time – but it is nevertheless an important body of premieres we, a record-driven society, easily overlook.

There have been a number of 1930s Furtwängler recordings that have made their way onto disc, but none as special as this performance. Authenticity issues aside – provenance is everything when assigning Furtwängler recordings legitimacy – there are clear musical indications that this disc is what it claims to be. We are fortunate to have recordings made by Prokofiev of his own music and the style of playing on this new disc is very much ‘of the time’. Rubato is minimal, for example, and where it does occur is distinctly non-interventionist. Prokofiev’s percussive style of playing (especially audible in this rather brittle work) remains quite unique – but what also suggests that this is the composer playing is the way that he draws keyboard colour out so convincingly (Prokofiev was a mercurial painter of tone) and the near-perfect attention to phrasing and dynamics. It is particularly the latter that suggests the composer is at the keyboard.

Prokofiev is, of course, technically superb – there is every hint that he was musically prepared for this premiere. The stratospheric keyboard effects glitter like spangles and there is a hectic propulsiveness to the keyboard playing throughout the final movement that electrifies. There is emotion also – albeit rather more restrained than we would be used to today – in the Larghetto. Prokofiev catches well the disparate moods of the work – though one hankers for a slightly less anodyne temperament. The Berlin Philharmonic are sympathetic – if by no means perfect - accompanists and Furtwängler himself – as he always was with soloists – is careful with the dynamic reach of the orchestration.

Prokofiev never featured in Furtwängler’s discography – or his concerts (except this one) – but he was often a single composer or single work conductor (for example, he only ever once performed Verdi’s Requiem). If that suggests a lack of sympathy with both work and composer – as some have suggested – that really doesn’t seem to be the case here. Furtwängler performances were never dull experiences and if there might be some degree of reticence in his conducting of the concerto that surely comes with unfamiliarity rather than any lack of sympathy with the music itself. As one would expect of a conductor who was also a composer Furtwängler’s dedication to the score is absolute.

The recording was made live in Berlin and that brings with it some problems. Firstly, the recorded piano sound is very forward – almost as if microphones were sat on the instrument. This compresses the orchestral sound considerably (at times the BPO seem almost to be no louder than a whisper); an added effect is the emphasis on the percussiveness of Prokofiev’s tone. Secondly, there is considerable hiss from the original shellacs – and in the Larghetto a very audible break in the sound as it splinters at 5’02. There has been very little attempt at re-mastering the sound and as such the performance requires considerable tolerance. The only corroboration of the source is that it comes from the state archives – no more information is given.

At just over 25 minutes the disc is short measure – but nothing could really be placed beside it (it is perhaps a little unfortunate, however, that we don’t even have a fragment of one of the other works on the programme, Hindemith as soloist in Harold en Italie). Nevertheless, it remains an important issue – and an indispensable one for Furtwängler and Prokofiev disciples.

Marc Bridle  

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