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A Neglected Russian Romantic Orchestral Treasure From Pianist Irena Portenko

While the heroes of the early days of last year’s lockdown were working long hours at hospitals where staff had been cut by fifty percent in order to engineer the illusion of a crisis, there was a much humbler kind of triage going on at this blog: sorting out the equally imperiled digital part of a constantly growing archive. A brief listen revealed that one album which had slipped through the cracks and didn’t deserve that fate was pianist Irena Portenko‘s 2016 performance of Prokofiev and Tschaikovsky concertos with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko. The recording quality of the album, Versus – streaming at Spotify – is very old-world: for a digital production, the sound is very contiguous, in the spirit of a vinyl record. This is the kind of album that you can listen to over and over again and discover something new every time.

The balmy, Debussyesque introduction to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 offers no clue where this beast is going to go, Portenko’s emphatic upward cascades against increasing lushness punctuated by an anxious, searching flute. But Prokofiev remains one of the kings of phantasmagoria, and Portenko and the ensemble quickly sink their fangs into a marionettish strut and then a distantly macabre haze before bringing back the Asian diatonics.

That’s just the first half of the first movement. The way she hangs back and lets the increasing unease speak for itself pays off mightily when she slams into the big, grim crescendo afterward, the orchestra circling like a hungry condor. The gusty, stricken second movement is over in a flash; the third, a processional written as a requiem for a friend of the composer who killed himself, is far more sinister in places. The flute and staccato strings in tandem with the piano are creepy to the extreme. Again, the restraint of both soloist and orchestra enhance the mysterious intensity of the concluding movement, Portenko’s sabretoothed ripples and icepick chords finally gaining traction as the orchestra linger and pulse behind her.

They shift gears for Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the most ravishingly beautiful (curmudgeons might say treacly) pieces of classical music ever written. It’s been ripped off by thousands of pop songwriters over the decades. Portenko doesn’t let it go there, with a clenched-teeth attack that raises the drama factor several times over, matched by Sirenko’s lavish touch in front of the orchestra. Yet there’s great subtlety from the ensemble: a bass breaks the surface, then flourishes from the reeds, matched by Portenko’s coy bit of a fugue in the first movement. Her gritty, intricate proto boogie-woogie in the movement’s third part screams out for the repeat button.

The second movement is balletesque yet replete with longing, Portenko rising to the challenge of the composer’s machinegunning rivulets. Starry, starry night! The third movement is where the Ukrainian bandura melody that Tschaikovsky polishes up and rips off throughout this piece really gets a workout: folk-rock, 19th century style. There are passages here that seem breathtakingly fast, compared to other orchestras’ interpretations: they seem to want everybody to hang on and enjoy the ride, up to the warmly familiar coda.

September 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment