The Prokofiev piano concertos are, like his symphonies, an uneven bunch. No. 3 is perhaps the most frequently performed 20th-century piano concerto after Rachmaninoff’s, but the last two are usually dusted off only as part of a performance or recording cycle. The current release is in this category, the projected first installment of a complete set.
Vadym Kholodenko, the thoughtful and expressive soloist here, is a Ukrainian artist who won the gold medal at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, where he settled afterward. He has been in the news recently because of a horrific family tragedy: His wife has been charged with homicide in the deaths of their two young daughters. But he has continued to perform. From the playing on this CD, one can see why he won the prestigious competition. Everything is carefully judged, no boundaries are crossed, and there’s a sense of settled maturity.
The Fifth Concerto, strangely, was a specialty of the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who made two recordings of it, and they dominated the catalogue until challenged by Vladimir Askhenazy. Kholodenko’s offering doesn’t shed new light on the music, but it is not outclassed by its distinguished predecessors. In the contemplative Larghetto, Kholodenko finds a gentleness that is very appealing, although Richter’s grim, sardonic reading of the first two movements still lodges in the memory.
Most collectors will turn first to the knuckle-busting Second Concerto, and here the competition is fierce, beginning with both the live and studio recordings of Horacio Gutierrez, which still hold off all challengers. (I’ve not heard Yuja Wang’s, which one would expect to be superb.) But Kissin, Bronfman and Ashkenazy cannot equal the leonine power Gutierrez brings to the work, particularly the Himalayan first-movement cadenza. Kholodenko is, sadly, an also-ran here, by some distance. His reflective approach, making sure everything sounds clearly, works against him in this roman candle of a piece.
The Fort Worth Symphony is a fine regional ensemble, and its principal winds can mostly hold their own against international competition. But the group lacks the cohesion, weight and corporate virtuosity of world-class orchestras on other recordings. Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads competently and effectively, but the recording engineers set up a poor balance. The sound is clean, there’s little spatial sense, other than that of an orchestra being quite recessed, with a lot of detail lost. Finally, 57 minutes of music is pretty short measure for a full-priced CD.
In 2009, Joan Tower presided over a somewhat disappointing performance of her own chamber music here in Washington, during the Kennedy Center’s CrossCurrents Festival. Two of the works on that program, the third string quartet (“Incandescent”) and the “Dumbarton Quintet,” have been recorded for the first time on a recent Naxos release, along with the American composer’s two most recent string quartets, No. 4 (“Angels”) and No. 5 (“White Water”), from 2008 and 2012, respectively.
Two prominent quartets have presented Tower’s music in the best light, beginning with the Miami String Quartet, which recorded the third and fourth quartets. The third quartet, commissioned for a new concert hall at Bard College, creates the sense of heat through many repeated-note motifs, small cells that are repeated and passed around the four instruments many times. The four players have communicated the intensity Tower wanted, including in three cadenzas for violin, viola and cello, but the composer’s hammering of the same motifs grows tiresome with repeated listening.
The fourth quartet, dedicated to the “angels” who helped Tower’s brother recover from a stroke, opens the same way, with an oscillating motif presented in alternate sections with more keening material in longer note values, often with glissandi. Tower has traced this focus on percussive, obsessive rhythm to her childhood in South America and her love of Stravinsky, and the use of brief rhythmically charged motifs is a tribute to one of her favorite composers, Beethoven. As the glissandi grow more and more frenetic, the piece comes suddenly to a close on a shining E major chord.
The Daedalus Quartet, formed in 2000, has recorded the fifth quartet, which also features glissandi as an important motivic element, evocative of flowing water, as Tower put it. In its original formation, the group won first prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, and since taking on two members a few years ago, it has continued to specialize in contemporary music. Tower’s music sounds more compelling, more animated, but also more balanced in this group’s hands, including in the “Dumbarton Quintet,” joined by Blair McMillen, who has succeeded Tower as pianist with her ensemble, the Da Capo Chamber Players. Commissioned by the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation in 2003, the work is an example of Tower’s focus on unison textures, which permeate the writing, including for piano alone. More extended harmonic structures are reminiscent of Messiaen, another of Tower’s favorite composers.