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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

  • Piano Concerto #2 in G minor, Op. 16
  • Piano Concerto #5 in G Major, Op. 55
Kun Woo Paik, piano
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.550565
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Recorded way back in 1991, this is one of two discs in Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik's Prokofieff concerto cycle for Naxos. Both are very fine, and seriously contend for the only cycle of these pieces you'll ever require. Classical music has its big names in this industry (and in this music), but even at this early stage, Naxos was highly competitive. Antoni Wit in particular has been a mainstay of the Naxos catalog and accompanies with consummate skill.

Although the Piano Concerto #3 grabs all the headlines and concert bookings, the other four concertos are no less arresting. The Piano Concertos #2 and #5 both feature unusual structures and very attractive solo lines. I actually think that the other concertos are in some ways more compelling than the Concerto #3, at least in terms of melody and contrast, but the former work does have the fireworks that audiences crave. In the Piano Concerto #2, I find Wit and his Polish forces to be preferable to Previn in London on Decca, if only because the less-alluring sound of the Polish strings gives a slightly more authentic sound to the music. That's right, the lack of tonal polish is a comparative strength here, though others will disagree. Previn's partner and soloist for those recordings was Vladimir Ashkenazy, and he is every bit Paik's equal. I definitely find Wit on Naxos freer in regards to tempo and phrasing, while Ashkenazy on Decca uncovers more pianistic detail at measured speeds.

In the Piano Concerto #5, comparisons largely reach similar conclusions. André Previn has the prettier London Symphony to work with, and Ashkenazy's slightly darker – and closely milked – readings combine with slightly slower tempos to really dig into this music. But Kun Woo Paik uses a lighter, speedier touch to really make these pieces click, and Wit's coarser sounds really do work, especially with the elasticity he permits. At times, the music sings, other times it snarls, and the results are quite exciting. Putting the concluding Vivo movements side by side, Wit and Paik win, hands down. The sheer intensity of attack – brass and strings wail away with abandon – coupled with some dazzling finger-work brings the disc to an explosive close. It's not for everybody, but at the Naxos price, certainly holds its own.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman