Proms 2015: Is five Prokofiev piano concertos in one night too many?

Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra's rendition of all five Prokofiev piano concertos in one programme has divided critics: is it a gimmick, or a masterstroke?

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All the way to the Royal Albert Hall for this, Valery Gergiev’s marathon of all five Prokofiev piano concertos in one night, I tried to work out what it was the prospect reminded me of. Somewhere on Exhibition Road, it came to me - I felt the same mixture of anticipation and incipient malaise that I had in 2003 when I went to a back-to-back, all night screening to celebrate the release of the third and final Lord of the Rings film. Now, I like both Prokofiev’s piano music and the films of Peter Jackson, but my concern on both occasions was simply this: do I like them enough?

In the case of Prokofiev, it turns out that I do. Or at least I did on this particular night, when Gergiev, his trio of pianists and the London Symphony Orchestra served them up one after the other. It was a long concert (in excess of three hours) with two intervals to allow us to catch our breath from all the virtuosity, but what could have been either a dry, academic survey of a composer’s output or a flashy pianists’ pissing contest ended up as a dramatic and even emotional evening of outstanding music.

It is generally understood that Prokofiev began composing piano concertos in order to have music to showcase his own prodigious talent as a pianist. The First, which he wrote while still a student in 1911, is a fabulous display of bravado and bluster - so clearly the music of a man who felt he had something to prove. It was played here by Daniil Trifonov, a young Russian pianist-composer like Prokofiev, but unlike him already at a young age the owner of an international reputation for extraordinary musicianship. Trifonov’s showmanship throughout the brief piece (it comes in at just over 15 minutes) was matched well by the LSO’s chilly brass sound, and went over very well with the audience.

For the fiendishly difficult Second, we had Trifonov’s teacher, Sergei Babayan, who has an altogether different sensibility. The vast complexity of the piece notwithstanding, there was a solid, even menacing quality about the way Babayan pounded the keyboard (at one point, it looked like it was punching it with his fist). Pupil followed master as Trifonov returned for the Third - the most popular of the five concertos by far, and clearly what had attracted many in the audience to this risky enterprise. It didn’t disappoint, with Trifonov suitably subdued in the quieter passages while still deploying tremendous acrobatics up and down the keyboard when the music demanded it. At one point, the way his wrists were crossing back and forth, over and under, it seemed impossible that he wouldn’t get himself tangled. When he emerged triumphant at the end, the loudest roar of the evening rose to greet him.

Daniil Trifonov at the piano. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The Fourth and Fifth are a different matter altogether. Neither had been performed at the Proms before this evening, and are rarely heard elsewhere, either. In that sense, the idea of doing all five concertos in a single night at least meant they got an airing. The Fourth is a left-hand only curiosity, which Prokofiev wrote in 1931 for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher) who had lost his right arm in the First World War. But its dedicatee never played it, and although Alexei Volodin worked hard to project from just the one hand, it’s easy to understand why the concerto’s spiky, scattered sensibility put Wittgenstein off. And by the time Babayan returned to the stage to give us the Fifth, I will admit to being a little fatigued. Yet the third Toccata movement woke me right up again, and the evening ended with rapturous applause for the three pianists and their great feat.

Playing five piano concertos in one night sounds mad, and I’m still not entirely convinced that it isn’t a bit loony. But as well the sheer spectacle of it, hearing all of them in chronological order like this brought the unexpected benefit of being able to hear the way Prokofiev’s style and vision developed and changed over the twenty years spanned by the works. Full credit must go to Gergiev, for somehow giving us fireworks and the opportunity to appreciate a well-known composer to a greater depth.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.