Pianist Rami Khalifé plays Prokofiev and El-Masri

Sergei Prokofiev : Piano Concerto # 5 in G Op.55 (1932) Abdallah El-Masri : Piano Concerto # 1 (2003)

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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The world is full of everything from good dates to bad dates, from good paintings to bad paintings, or as the celebrated American painter Alex Katz put it — ” When I work I don’t ask ‘ Does the world really need another painting? ‘ ” He just gets up and works every day. Mozart wasn’t sitting around waiting for something to make him write because he had huge bills to pay, and the promise of cold hard cash from a loyal subscription audience to facilitate this was probably more on his mind. And — no, God wasn’t whispering in his ear telling him what to write. But one undeniable fact remains. Mozart’s twenty-seven piano concertos are now considered to be consummate works for the keyboard which of course also includes Beethoven’s five. And the five composed by Russian / Soviet master Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) are, in terms of technical demands, musical excitement, and — depth — easily the equal of these aforesaid masters. The Lebanese pianist-composer Rami Khalifé ( b. 1981- ) knows this classical repertoire backward and forwards. And his remarkably accomplished playing on this CD pairs two modernist masterworks — Prokofiev’s “old ” one with a new one by Lebanese composer Abdallah El-Masri ( b. 1962 –). It’s a thrilling and provocative coupling which also proves that these two widely divergent works are “modern” in their own distinctive ways.

What passed for modernism in 1932 wasn’t what passes for modernism now, but Prokofiev was one of its masters and remains so. He is also one of the greatest and most original composers of the twentieth century. Sure, he composed fluently and prolifically — didn’t Mozart  ? — but you never feel he’s changing into fashionable new duds to impress the critics and/or wow the audience as his rivals Stravinsky and Shostakovich sometimes did because fashion rules behavior, whether artistic or not. But Prokofiev was always only himself. He bent received forms to his own expressive ends but that’s what working in the classical or any other traditional means. His Piano Concerto # 1 in D flat (1911-12) shocked and surprised. His Concerto # 2 in g (1917-21), written partly as a memorial to his fellow pianist friend Maximillian Schmidthof, who committed suicide, ends its first movement with one of the wildest and most difficult cadenzas ever written for a solo pianist in a concerto. His Concerto # 3 in C (1917-21 ) charmed, and moved audiences. It remains his most popular, while his equally virtuosic Concerto # 4 in Bb, for the Left Hand (1931), written for the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel wrote his second piano concerto, seduces the listener with its imagination and wit.  

But Prokofiev’s Concerto # 5 hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves, perhaps because he doesn’t sound entirely ” serious “. And it commits the gravest sin of all because it gives pleasure when die-hard “modernists” — and yes that means Schoenberg — tended to take the high seriousness “nobody understands my genius” road. Some critics have even called Prokofiev’s Fifth “enigmatic” perhaps because they can’t see his forest for their trees. The great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) brought it to the attention of a large audience through the power of his live performances and a recorded one. But Khalife’s no slouch here. He catches Prokofiev’s hide-and-seek approach. His tactics also resemble those of the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948 ) who invented his montage technique which he described as ” an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots wherein each sequential element is perceived not next to the other but on top of the other.” But Prokofiev had been writing similarly before he scored three of Eisenstein’s most famous films, beginning with Alexander Nevsky in 1937, and frequent “illogical ” “jump cuts ” — a kind of montage — had appeared in his ritualistic “Scythian Suite” (1914), and “Seven, They are Seven” (1917-18). Russian visual artists like Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) were also working in a similar but highly personal vein at that time. Prokofiev’s seemingly fractured continuity made a new kind of “sense” and it’s always theatrical. His # 5 requires the pianist to go from acting like a leading man or lady — let’s not forget the very much alive Yuja Wang and Martha Argerich —  to an actor or an actress just accompanying the onstage action. Khalife manages each role change perfectly. His touch, whether light or incisive, always fits, his passagework is always immaculate. Korobov and his orchestra nail # 5’s myriad shifts, from the “out of focus” sounding lyricism in Movement IV’s “Larghetto” to the metric challenges in Movement II “Moderato ben accentuato ” — meaning in a moderate tempo, but well accentuated —  with panache and point. Prokofiev even inserts a quick parody of the oh-so self-important romantic style there, plus a false ending in Movement V “Vivo” before a real one in the guise of a mini coda closes the show. 

El- Masri’s Piano Concerto #1 (2003) is a horse of a completely different color. It also strikes me as one of the most beautifully realized piano concertos in the modernist tradition which must have been hard. Why? Because by birth and education he’s perhaps more complex and faceted than Bartok and Ravel, who were educated in their home countries while he was born and educated in the Middle East, and even more elaborately trained at Moscow’s truly legendary Tchaikovsky Conservatory. His music incorporates gestures from both traditions including the Arabic maqamat ( scales ) with their unique melodic inflections. The West loves to see the Middle East as a place of unalloyed suffering which is only partially true but have you looked at the West recently? The Lebanese Civil War ( 1975-1990 ) involved local militias of many stripes fighting each other as well as the “intervention” of hostile state actors like Syria and Israel, continues to have a big effect on Lebanon’s history as its current fall 2021 economic/societal crisis shows. And its shadow seems to haunt the turbulent, even cataclysmic stretches of El-Masri’s Symphony # 1 (1991) which he has orchestrated to a fare thee well. It’s a strong piece but this one sounds more convincing overall. You could even say that it affects a sea change in his work.
But how did Khalife get this commission? El-Masri told me via e-mail that Khalifé’s celebrated father www.marcelkhalife.com asked the composer to write a piano concerto for his son while he was still studying at New York’s Juilliard School. He had known him as a young musician in Lebanon and was very impressed with his technique. They went over El-Mari’s score for the first time at the recording sessions for this Khalifé PIANO CONCERTOS CD at Studio One at Moscow’s www.mosfilm.ru. And like most modernist, or even standard rep works, this concerto #1 makes big technical demands on both soloist and orchestra. It’s also a very expressive piece which sets it apart from lots of “new music” which often mistakes effects for substance. It, therefore, requires great sensitivity and I mean real sensitivity because its rhythmic, melodic, and textural shifts are acute, and its agenda if you will, is purely musical. El-Masri also bends its three-movement Baroque / Early Classical layout — roughly fast; slow; fast, though each of the three movements has many rhythmic/ metric changes —  for his own specific needs. Its opening harp figure —- B– C– D# — E– F– Gb — A–  B — sounds like the beginning of a  twelve-tone row by Schoenberg whose New Vienna School ( Neue Wiener Schule ) virtually mandated its use in “cutting edge ” music of his time. El-Masri has obviously passed through its method but he’s invented his own musical language which integrates his “oriental” identity with the Central European tradition, and both traditions co-exist happily here, though one could hardly call it a “crossover” piece.

El-Masri’s writing for Khalifé also exploits the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic gestures of these oriental and occidental traditions as well as Khalife’s technical finesse. His playing here is virtuosic throughout but never showy. even in the sometimes massive orchestral passages which seem to explode like a wall. It’s equally convincing in the quiet “tempo rubato ” ones in which the note values “steal” from each other so that the melodic rhythm feels both natural and improvised. Life may not always seem to breathe but a musical work has to, and many parts of this concerto are polyrhythmic, and if my ears are on right, polytonal, and both imply forward motion. El-Masri has also composed several remarkably beautiful, powerful, and wide-ranging cadenzas for Khalife which successfully merge these supposedly contrary/contradictory traditions, with writing that’s both pellucid or harsh.
Russian master composers like Rimsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev are justly renowned for their skill in orchestration, and El-Masri has obviously learned and benefited from the far less famous ones who taught him this skill in Moscow, But orchestrational skill by itself is never enough because musical imagination has to separate the women from the girls, or the men from the boys, and El-Masri is singularly blessed in this regard. His ideas and how he colors them never sound mainstream which my late composer-critic friend Virgil Thomson ( 1896-1989) — www.virgilthomson.org — told me in a 1987 interview we did in San Francisco, because ” mainstream gets you no closer to freshness than the day before yesterday.” El-Masri’s for the proverbial battery of percussion, which ranges from temple block to sleigh bells, to tamburo militaire ( snare drum ) sounds both fresh and inspired, especially in the closing pages of Movement III, where he pits the dry, steady 1-2 pulse in 3/8 in the four tympani over a steady, seductive 3 + 3 + 3 pattern in Khalifé’s solo piano. Musical heaven is achieved, but not explained because every good work of art should ask the most basic questions, and if that artist is wise, he or she will keep his or her cards with their answers a bit close to their chests. Otherwise, what’s the point, for, as everyone knows, telling everything gets you nowhere fast. 



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