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possibly the best Prokofiev 3 ever?
on 26 October 2013
There is no shortage of brilliant recordings of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto but this one has an edge of excitement that makes its appearance a red-letter day. Lang Lang is totally superb but the real difference is in the sound. This new recording allows you to hear things I have never heard before, and with orchestration as colourful as Prokofiev's, this is a huge asset. It's as if you're in the middle of a forest painted by Rousseau, with fleshy leaves, outsize flowers and tigers all around. Simon Rattle has always brought out the beauty of sound in detail in all his recordings, without ever forcing the pace, so that you have time to hear everything (in this regard he reminds me a bit of Ernest Ansermet). His contribution here is immeasurable in giving this work its full stature, and when you add Lang Lang's thrilling virtuosity, tonal range, and sheer fire-power, you have something extraordinary. His phrasing continually struck me as unique, so that the piece seems as if you're hearing it for the first time. The other vital aspect is the quality of the recording, which is fantastically big and vivid. The recording producer Christoph Franke is seen working with the sound engineer Rene Moller at the sessions in a 11-minute behind-the-scenes film, and their attention to the piano tone and the balance with the orchestra has yielded amazing results. I had the same feeling in the Marinsky's version of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1 with Trifonov - this sense of being in the middle of the players is fantastic.
The Bartok concerto has similar virtues, although it is in a more austere idiom. Personally I prefer it to sound a bit dryer and more percussive, as you hear in the Pollini/Abbado version, where Lang Lang and Rattle are more "expressive" and varied in tonal nuance. I'm sure this approach is just as valid, and again there is the range of colour in the orchestral sound. In fact the comparison with Prokofiev seems to emphasise their differences, with Bartok sounding much more modern, even in the "night-music" of the slow movement, and less readily suggestive of images from the real world. Altogether this is something of a landmark release, and Lang Lang fans will surely be happy to have the film, plus the first movement of the Prokofiev on DVD, as well as a large number of photos from the sessions, some of them quite funny, and certainly worth a look.