Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Opus 10

Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 10

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine, on April 23, 1891—so he always said, though his birth certificate said April 27—and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1911 and served as soloist when the piece was premiered on August 7, 1912, at Sokolniki Park, a Moscow suburb, with Konstantin Saradzhev conducting. Prokofiev also introduced this music to America; that was on December 10, 1918, in New York, with the Russian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Modest Altschuler. This work was introduced to San Francisco Symphony audiences by pianist John Browning, with Seiji Ozawa conducting, in January 1971; in the most recent subscription performances here, in April 2004, Yefim Bronfman was soloist and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bells, and strings, in addition to the solo piano. Performance time: about sixteen minutes.

Sergei Prokofiev died in Moscow at about 9:00 on the evening of March 5, 1953, as the sudden result of a cerebral hemorrhage. Americans learned of his passing before most Soviets did. By a curious turn of fate, his last act was upstaged in his own land by one of the few personalities capable of doing so: Joseph Stalin, who died less than an hour after Prokofiev. All official attention would be turned toward Stalin’s obsequies. As a result, not more than fifty people attended Prokofiev’s funeral, at which David Oistrakh played excerpts from the composer’s F minor Violin Sonata and Sviatoslav Richter placed a pine bough on the coffin.

It was the final irony of a life that had seen more than its share of ironies, a quirky send-off to a composer whose work had often been informed by curious and even poignant juxtapositions. No one could have foreseen this in 1911, when he completed his Piano Concerto No. 1. At that time the Soviet Union itself lay in the future. Prokofiev had begun studying composition privately, guided at arm’s length by the distinguished composer Sergei Taneyev, by the time he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of twelve. He proved to be an exceptional student, studying piano with the celebrated Anna Essipova and conducting with Nicolai Tcherepnin.

Prokofiev was still a student when he premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1. He applied himself conscientiously to learning the piano part, writing to his friend Vasily Morolev, “it’s the first time I’ll have played with an orchestra” and “I have to know it by heart to play it confidently.” The gray suit he had intended to wear for the concert was stolen while he was en route. The only available piano was far from ideal. The orchestra didn’t start making sense of the piece until near the end of the rehearsal. And the horn players refused to play from untransposed parts, which meant that Prokofiev had to spend five hours in the sweltering summer heat copying out new parts for them. But other than that, it all turned out to be a pretty good experience for the young composer. Prokofiev wrote to his close friend Maximilian Schmidthof about the success of the premiere: “The concerto went well. Saradzhev realized all the tempos splendidly. The music was in my fingers. . . .  The outward success was considerable; there were a lot of summonses to the platform and three encores.”

There was room for dissent. Leonid Sabaneyev, the critic for the publication Moscow Voice, found nothing good to say about the piece: “This energetically rhythmed concerto, coarse and crude, primitive and cacophonic, scarcely merits its honorable title. The composer, in his quest of novelty, but lacking it in the depth of his nature, has apparently contorted himself to the ultimate limit. This sort of thing does not happen with real talents.” Not everyone agreed. Prokofiev went on to play the same piece two years later at his graduation from Saint Petersburg Conservatory, on which occasion he was awarded high honors and the coveted Anton Rubinstein Prize, which included a new grand piano. He would shortly embark on a dual career as a touring pianist and a composer, and he managed to balance the competing demands of those domains adeptly. He was an excellent pianist of distinct personality; the critic Boris de Schloezer described his pianistic style as “brilliant, rather dry, but extremely polished, pure and ‘finished,’ ” and a listener has no trouble discerning that those traits convey his works ideally in performance.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is a tightly constructed piece, its three movements (which are connected without pauses between) running only a bit longer than fifteen minutes. What is most remarkable is the extent to which this “first more-or-less mature composition” (as the composer called it) truly sounds like what would come to be considered Prokofievian. One hears it at the outset, in the powerful, gleaming theme that we will hear twice again before the piece is out: “The three whales that hold the piece together” is what Prokofiev once called those passages. He alludes to polytonality--through the close and witty juxtaposition of scales of C major and D-flat major—without going much farther with the idea, and rhythmic audacity similarly plays itself out strictly on the surface. But Modernism is crouching tensely in this piece, waiting to spring forth with the exuberance of the Prokofiev scores that would follow shortly, such as the Scythian Suite (1914-15), Violin Concerto No. 1 (1917), and the ballet Chout (The Buffoon, 1920).

James M. Keller

An earlier form of this note originally appeared in the program books of the Juilliard Symphony.

More About the Music
Recordings: Vladimir Feltsman with Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Yefim Bronfman with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic (Sony Classical)  |  Martha Argerich with Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (EMI)

Reading: Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by the composer’s son Oleg Prokofiev (Faber & Faber)

(May 2014)