Alexei Volodin and ESO: Prokofiev Piano Concertos

With the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra under 莊文貞

We have managed to get through three  of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos here on the blog, the first a lighter, brief piece in contrast with the monstrously, heavy, immensely challenging second, and then the famous and still incredibly difficult third.

And despite the difficulties of those three, I attended a concert at which Alexei Volodin played all five Prokofiev concertos. Up until this event, I actually had not heard a single Prokofiev piano concerto live, and now, in one fell swoop, I get them all. That’s a hell of a concert program, and quite a challenge, so I was most concerned about the pianist’s stamina. At least the right hand could take a rest in the fourth concerto.

Before we get going, let me just say I was very impressed this evening. The Evergreen Symphony Orchestra is, shall we say, a triple-A orchestra, while the big three in Taiwan (National Symphony, Taipei Symphony, and National Taiwan Symphony Orchestras) are the “Major League” ensembles, if you will.

After having taken our (quite good) seats, I was surprised to see the lights dim, the two-minute warning (or five) before the program began, with only about 30% of the concert hall full. That always makes me feel very bad for the performers, like the lonely kid to whose birthday party no one showed up. I’d never seen or heard Volodin, but he was about to take on quite a task, all five Prokofiev concertos back-to-back-to-back, etc. with two intermissions, except as they were announcing the “please don’t take photos” business, they said the second intermission was to be cancelled. Fine with me.

Before the downbeat for Prokofiev’s piano concerto no. 1 had even been given, I was preparing myself, if need be, to write a scathing review of the orchestra; I had more confidence in the pianist, even without having ever heard him. I’ve only been to a very few of the ESO’s concerts, and none were bad, don’t get me wrong, but they were certainly nothing to be terribly excited about, although it is thanks to them (under Schmalfuss) that I heard Mahler 5 live.

Anyway, from the get go, Prokofiev sounds promising. The first concerto, youthful, bubbly, short and brisk, is played crisply and energetically, and I’m starting to get very optimistic. It’s clear that while this piece was written to win a piano competition in which the composer was participating, it is still a meaty piece, with plenty of acrobatics for the pianist, which Volodin seemed to approach with cool collectedness. First concerto? Brilliant. I am very excited now, especially for the work I’m looking most forward to hearing.

The second concerto, in stark contrast with the first, is heavy, serious, grim, powerful, dark, soul-stirring, dedicated to Prokofiev’s fellow student and close friend who committed suicide, and you can hear it throughout the work, most notably perhaps in the frighteningly enormous five-ish minute long cadenza, which I’ve only ever heard Yuja Wang or Vladimir Ashkenazy perform (from recordings; again, I’d never heard any of these pieces live before). Volodin didn’t just play the cadenza, nor did he attack it like he was laying siege to a formidable enemy; he played it like he’d written it. I can’t speak to dynamics, chords, fingerings, anything like that, but to sit in the hall live and have just a teeny bit of your soul spill out into your lap as someone splashes theirs all over a piano is a powerful and exhausting experience. Volodin played with passion and accuracy, an unstoppable sort of drive. The rest of the piece is no walk in the park either, and the moment when the orchestra returns after said cadenza is one of the most tragic, powerful, dark moments in music, and the ESO nailed it. They and Ms. Conductor get very high marks for being outstandingly in step with the pianist for the entire evening, but it is especially touching in such an emotionally charged piece. Absolute bravo, just hypnotizing.

And exhausting.

Hence the intermission after piano concerto no. 2.

After the intermission (originally to be the first of two) we come back out for the fourth concerto, for the left hand. Thanks to Paul Wittgenstein, we have concerti for the left hand from the likes of Ravel, Britten, Korngold, Hindemith (sad fate there), and, obviously, Prokofiev. It was suddenly as if Volodin’s right hand was entirely limp, sitting in his lap like a sad fish as he seemingly effortlessly navigated the four movements of the fourth concerto. I’m trying to think of what particular evolution the composer is showing in his works, how his form of expression changed. To be honest, I’m extremely unfamiliar with the fourth and fifth concertos, but Volodin, after two concertos already, plays the fourth with equal vigor, his right hand getting a rest (and occasionally wiping sweat from his brow) as the left seems to want to cramp up, maybe; he stretches it out every chance he gets.

Maybe it’s just Prokofiev’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, his sense of humor and wit, the orchestral texture and color that become more fragrant, more vibrant, clearer yet more complex as he progresses, farther away from the more straightforward Romanticism of the first or third. In any case, the result, no matter how truly outstandingly the concertos are played, is that I’m feeling musically a bit like the way you feel when you say the same word over and over and over and over again to the point that it begins to lose meaning. It will happen no matter how wonderful a word it is. ‘Imagination, imagination, imagination….’

In any case, we’re now to the fifth concerto, after the exciting fourth, which ends with a small little vestigial tail of a movement. The fifth, in five movements, seems to be the most complex, perhaps the last big push before the third and most famous concerto appears. While in five movements, the fifth moves quickly, with some very short, energetic, lively movements, clearly his latest work of the five, and the orchestra still seems quite unfazed. Throughout the evening, 莊文貞 keeps her orchestra members in step with one another and is flexible enough to follow Volodin’s lead, and if you know these pieces, you know what lock-step Prokofiev requires them to be in. It’s exhausting to listen to, much less play. But solo after solo, be it oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, violin, they’re all spot on (with the exception of one, and even that wasn’t bad), no cringe moments to speak of, even four concertos into a five-concerto program. This continued as the clarinets played a tender, warm, supple opening to the third piano concerto, before it explodes to life.

I’m also thinking of like, Maria Abramovic, of performance art, not performance of music, and how the actual idea of performing these five works one right after the other is a feat in and of itself, (almost) regardless of how they’re played, to experience them as a whole. It’s gutsy to do that, and even more so to cancel the second intermission, that should have come between the fourth and fifth pieces of the evening (after the fifth concerto and before the third), so instead of another potty break, Volodin disappears momentarily and returns for the grand finale.

Volodin played the third concerto last weekend with the NTSO somewhere that wasn’t Taipei, and don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means an easy piece, but it’s likely his most-rehearsed, and by far the most famous. There is perhaps only the slightest indication of any fatigue from Volodin, or that could just be my own, and none from the orchestra as we prepare to wrap up a very satisfying evening.

I’d prepared to be brutally honest, if need be, about not biting off more than you can chew, about not disappointing your audiences, no matter how small, about doing justice to music… but by golly, this was a damn good concert, and the (very) few of us in attendance were mighty darn privileged to be in attendance for it. By the time the breathtaking third is wrapped up, finishing with it’s blisteringly-hot energy with those octave passages and the orchestra at full blast, my thoughts about the too-empty concert hall had turned from disappointment to a strange sense of pride that we were the select few who were able to enjoy such an astounding evening.

Volodin isn’t some wet-behind-the-ears pianist, I don’t think. He’s at least some years older than I am, but I’d never heard of him. Perhaps such a stunt as this one this evening, a traversal in a single concert of a very challenging series of piano concertos, was meant to drum up some more press. Well, it was far more than a stunt: it was deeply satisfying, moving, exciting, thought-provoking music, and here we are talking about him, so…. win-win, I guess. I’d say Volodin has a promising career ahead, but again, he’s no freshman to this game. Keep your eyes peeled for him in your record stores and concert halls, because he served up a killer performance tonight. Much credit to 莊 and the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, as well, for a really splendid night all around.

So much Russian stuff lately, huh? Many concerts. Well, that’s about to change, because as things stand now, it’ll be exactly a month (April 22) before I’ll be in the concert hall again, which, mind you, is quite a long time for me, so thanks again to everyone tonight for something to hold me over for a little while. Phew. And this traversal has me looking forward to another five-concerto composer whose works I’ll be hearing all in one day, but we’ll have to wait a few months for that one.

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