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CD Review

Anna Vinnitskaya plays Ravel & Prokofieff

Naïve 5238
Anna Vinnitskaya, piano
German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/Gilbert Varga
Naïve V5238
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I am not one to believe in definitive performances of anything. This rendition of the challenging Prokofiev Second almost caused me to abandon that stance. Anna Vinnitskaya, winner of the 2007 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, turns in one of the finest performances of this concerto I've ever encountered. I've heard tons of Prokofiev Seconds and possess a spate of recordings of it: Cherkassky, Henriot-Schweitzer, Frager (I no longer have), Bolet (two versions), Browning, Beroff, Ashkenazy (two versions), Tacchino, Bronfman, Gutierrez, Paik, Feltsman, Yundi Li and maybe a few others. And I've also heard several live performances, including two very fine efforts by Yuja Wang.

This one by Vinnitskaya contains a powerfully dark first movement, featuring a cadenza with all manner of subtleties, from the soloist's deft phrasing and dynamics to her all-encompassing technical skills. The second movement Scherzo crackles with energy, and the fourth movement contains a scorching mixture of agitation and regret, presented in the most virtuosic and poetic playing I've ever heard in this great finale. Only the third movement Intermezzo comes across less convincingly, mainly because Vinnitskaya's tempo is a tad on the slow side. She takes a more measured, darker approach than is usual, but it's hard to blame her: the work was written around the time of the suicide of Maximilian Schmidthof, a pianist friend of Prokofiev. Most musicologists believe the sense of tragedy in the concerto is related to that unsettling event in the young composer's life. Thus, Vinnitskaya's Intermezzo is more terrifying than sardonic, more crushing than muscular. The climax comes across with wanton power, with devastating finality, but what precedes, while well played and thoughtfully conceived, doesn't quite fit the spirit of the Allegro marking: for one thing, that cackling main theme should contain a good measure of humor. That said, I still have no problem considering this one of the finest, and perhaps THE finest Prokofiev Second ever recorded. Only Gutierrez on Chandos and Yundi Li on DG are serious competitors and I'm not sure I can say their virtues stack up to quite match Vinnitskaya's.

The Ravel G major? I've probably heard a good dozen or more performances of this work as well: Vlado Perlemuter, Henriot-Schweitzer, Leonard Bernstein (yes, he played it and played it well), Martha Argerich, Helene Grimaud, Francois-Joel Thiollier, Francesco Tristano Schlimé and others. This account by Vinnitskaya sparkles in the outer movements and her central Adagio is lovely in its bluesy wistfulness. What I like about Vinnitskaya is her steadiness, her good sense to eschew whimsical meanderings, quirky phrasing and extreme tempo choices, whether in Ravel or Prokofiev.

Argerich is tough to beat in the Ravel G major Concerto, but Vinnitskaya does, I believe. I recently reviewed Argerich's EuroArts DVD (2057898) of this concerto and found it quite convincing, though her 1998 go at it for DG, with Abbado conducting, was perhaps a bit less convincing. Vinnitskaya brings out more detail than Argerich in either of her recordings and is just as spirited. Gilbert Varga affords the listener a chance to hear Ravel's colorful orchestration in rich detail as he draws splendid playing from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Naïve provides excellent sound. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2010, Robert Cummings.

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