The Monterey Symphony’s concert last night in Sunset Center was a blockbuster! Totally dominating the program was an electrifying performance of the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto by Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik. The score of this concerto, composed in 1913, destroyed in a fire during the 1917 Revolution, reconstructed and recomposed by Prokofiev in 1923, lay dormant like a sleeping giant – untouched and unloved by a generation of pianists. It received its first recorded performance by Jorge Bolet in 1953, followed by acclaimed recordings by Radu Lupu in 1962, Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1967, Horacio Gutiérrez in 1990 and one by this evening’s soloist, Kun Woo Paik, in 1991.
We have no way of knowing how the 1923 recomposed version compares to what listeners at its 1913 debut heard, but certainly the comments of critics at the time recognized that this was an extraordinary work, terrifying to perform, challenging to listen to and facing an uncertain future. Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, noted in 2011: “A decade ago I would have said there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly. Martha Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Evgeny Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev himself got into a terrible mess trying to perform it with Ansermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers.”
Kun Woo Paik gave us a violent and aggressive performance that stressed the virtuoso and dissonant elements at the expense of its occasional lyricism. This is an entirely legitimate approach, and Paik’s performance was delivered with masterful authority. His rendition of the first movement’s poignant and haunting first theme was powerful and developed logically into the powerhouse development that followed. Especially effective was the long cadenza (the longest in the piano concerto repertoire) and the lovely quiet ending of this movement. The second movement, Scherzo, was a dizzying perpetual motion that received a dazzling performance. The third movement, Intermezzo, surprising for its violence (described by Sviatoslav Richter as “a dragon devouring its young”) is full of sinister harshness, which Paik captured with consummate ease. In the last movement, which reverts to the more expansive mood of the first, Paik made a powerful effect, especially in the huge cadenza and exciting final moments, which earned for Paik a prolonged standing ovation. Notable in the audience was a great turnout by the Korean community, and in the lobby we heard almost as much Korean as English being spoken.
Opening the concert the Monterey Symphony performed three movements from Carl Nielsen’s rarely heard Aladdin, Op. 34. These showed off the players of the Monterey Symphony to splendid effect and seemed all too brief. Ending the concert, Conductor Max Bragado-Darman and the Monterey Symphony gave us a rich and romantic performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major. Especially memorable were some lovely flute solos by Dawn Walker, and a great moment featuring the cellos and basses playing softly as an independent string section.