This is another which would fall under the category of resolving the problem of glut. Prokofiev’s Third is among the most popular of piano concertos, and is assured of being so for the foreseeable future by dint of the fact that it is, among other things, a competition perennial. It poses challenges that a young pianist would, and should, want to surmount, and so they all have it in their repertoire, and so we hear it a lot. In certain circles, the piece is resented for this very reason, as it is so often treated like a kind of steeplechase, which it is, but the grudgingness of such respect overlooks the fact that in addition to being a challenging piece, it is also chock full of terrifically distinctive lyrical melodies, ideas, jokes and jewels. It just keeps coming at you with ideas and surprises and runs and riffs and gorgeous melodies. Richter referred to Prokofiev’s eighth sonata as being “a tree laden with fruit.” The same could be said of the third.
For all these reasons, there are a ton of serviceable versions out there. (Oddly enough, there is no Richter account.) I get the sense that maybe Martha Argerich is given the edge as an interpreter, but let me cast my vote here for Byron Janis.
Janis is an American pianist who peaked in popularity in the 60s and whose career was curtailed for a time by arthritis. (He is also, for those who might be interested, husband of Gary Cooper’s daughter, but sadly no relation to Conrad Janis, Mindy’s Boss on Mork and Mindy, despite the fact that Conrad Janis apparently plays a pretty mean trombone.) He has in recent years overcome his arthritis, enough at least to mount a comeback, issuing recording of not quite so physically demanding Chopin pieces.
In 1960, Janis made a trip to the Soviet Union of which this album (which includes an account of Rach’s 2nd) is the lasting fruit. The crowds loved him, stormed the stage, and when the dust and flowers all cleared recorded his version there in Moscow, with the Moscow Philharmoic under the direction of Kryril Kondrashin.
There are a couple reasons why I would recommend this above all the rest.
First, Janis. In comparison to most other versions, I’d say his tempi are just a teeny bit on the slow side – or to put another way, every one else’ tempi (such as Argerich, and Prokofiev himself) are wee bit fast for the reason already mentioned: pianists feeling obliged to prove their chops with speed. Janis (like the also highly recommendable Grigory Sokolov) draws down on speed, but only so that he can hit a little harder. If this is not the fleetest Third on record, it winds up being one of the more percussive and clear. It is a full throttle attack. There is no smudging, as result of which there are moment, and passages, that come through with a clarity I’ve never really heard elsewhere.
To name the most outstanding instance. About ten minutes into the second movement, a Theme with Variations, Prokofiev comes to what is probably his fifth crack at the melody in question. What Janis and Kondrashin decide to do, precisely by slowing it down,yields what is without question one of the downright funkiest passages is the classical catalogue. If you don’t find yourself actually bobbing and weaving to the downbeat syncopation of the 30 or so seconds at question, you, my friend, do not have a neck
The other glaring virtue of this particular recording is the quality of sound. This is one of those “Mercury Living Presence” recordings, of which there are a limited number. I’m no engineer. I won’t pretend to know exactly why the Mercury Living Presence Recording sound the way they do. It has something to do with the quality of the microphones, (microphones being one piece of hardware that has apparently gotten worse in the last fifty years, not better) – and with how they were placed around the orchestra, and with the fact that the orchestra was playing, more or less live, not all clipped together like Frankenstein’s monster.
Whatever the cause, the effect is extraordinary. I venture to say that on the basis of sound alone, all MLP recordings are (as they say) self-recommending, but the other one that I would recommend would be the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Like the Prokofiev, it positively blooms in your living room. It surrounds you. It sits you in your chair, lights your pipe, and shoves the ottoman underneath your feet. In fact, the vibrancy of these recordings have always suggested a comparison to me, the explanation of which may be as philosophical as technological or psychological, who knows? But think of movies made in the same era, late fifties, early sixties. Think of all the Douglas Sirk. Think of ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS. Think of THE RED SHOES, think of the actual palettes of those films, how rich and deep they are, almost like blots on the screen. If those colors could be turned into sounds, the MLP recording is what they would sound like. Again, I leave it to the reader to figure out how contemporaneous technologies of two such different media – sound recording and visual recording – were able to yield such eerily similar emotional and aesthetic effects, but I stand by the impression. The Janis recording sounds like Sirk movies look – which is to say, gorgeous in a way that we may simulate, but never recapture.