Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born at Sontsovka, Government of Ekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Russia on April 23, 1891 and died at Nikolina Gora near Moscow on March 5, 1953, the same day as Stalin. Prokofiev completed this concerto in 1921, though the theme of the second movement goes back to 1913, and he had tried hard in 1916-17 to come to grips with the work. He was the soloist at the premiere, which was given on December 16, 1921 at a concert of the Chicago Symphony, Frederick Stock conducting. Prokofiev was also soloist for the first San Francisco Symphony performance of this music in February 1930, with Alfred Hertz conducting, and most recently, in November 2012, Lang Lang was soloist with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. The orchestra consists of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, bass drum, castanets, tambourine, cymbals, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-eight minutes.
Prokofiev had been gathering ideas for a decade when he finally composed his Third Piano Concerto during a summer holiday on the Brittany Coast in 1921, early in his years of wandering after the Bolshevik Revolution. He had left Russia on the last continental train headed east across Siberia. With $300 borrowed from a fellow passenger booked on a ship bound from Japan for San Francisco, he landed in America with high expectations of making his mark on the music scene. But his bold, steely, unmannered playing was such a novelty in those days that he could hardly compete for the affection of audiences enamored of his Romantic compatriot, Rachmaninoff.
Trying his luck in Chicago, where Cyrus McCormick introduced him to important people, Prokofiev met both Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Cleofonte Campanini, music director of the Chicago Opera. On December 16 and 17, 1921, Prokofiev played the first performances of his Third Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to a public that was less understanding than chauvinistically supportive. Feeling bashed by his American ambitions, Prokofiev traveled abroad and withdrew for a while to a quiet Bavarian village.
Like the keyboard works of other virtuoso composers, from the Bach family to Beethoven and Bartók, to cite only a few, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 profiles its composer’s own pianism—his technique as well as his spirit, which ranges from exuberant and extroverted to poetic and introspective. All this was noted in his first recording: the Third Piano Concerto, which he put on disk with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Piero Coppola. Prokofiev was outstanding for his energy, incisive rhythm, and powerful sound (“sometimes even hard to bear in a small room,” a friend observed), not to overlook the phenomenal technique, reflected in this score’s sparkling runs and resilient chords. The vivid juxtaposition of contrasting ideas—joyous, soulful, sometimes reveling in the grotesque, and these compacted even within a single movement—attests to the broad range of emotional responsiveness characteristic of Prokofiev’s humanity. His friend Mstislav Rostropovich has said: “Listening to his music I am always reminded of his manner of speaking—witty, candid, at times brusque, but often gentle.”
A solitary clarinet prefaces the concerto with a simple melody that is Russian to the core; its expressiveness is affirmed in the union of a single flute with first violins, divided in high octaves, their transparent sound softly glowing. At the shift to Allegro, the movement sets forth on a bristling string figuration, whereupon the piano announces an exhilarating tune that, under scrutiny, turns out to be an offspring of the placid opening. A brittle second subject, at first dryly enunciated by solo oboe, provides a vehicle for striking contrast; its mood is half-mocking, the rhythm taut and mechanical. Prokofiev develops these materials according to the classical canon, as defined in the models of Haydn and Mozart. Emerging as the chief topic, however, is the lyric strain of the introduction. You will hear it sung out by the keyboard, dolce, and taken up in a deft canon by bassoon, trailed by clarinet. Gathering momentum for the reprise, the movement resorts to the energizing figure that had marshaled the exposition. This time around it is spun off by the piano, and the second subject too is restored by the soloist, giving off prickly chords. A vigorous coda, resplendent with piano figurations, makes a headlong drive to the finish, where it is punctuated by an explosive C.
The second movement opens with the subject of five variations (a dance-like theme conceived in Russia, in 1913) announced by the flute and clarinet over the slow tread of strings. The initial variation, launched by a piano trill and whisk of a scale, preserves the pace, while the subsequent variation bursts in a tempest of sound and rhythm; from within the flickering passage-work the trumpet sounds the theme, now molded into a rousing allegro. Here, as elsewhere in the concerto, the treatment of the ideas is as engrossing for the orchestra as it is for the keyboard. The pace slackens for the third variation; embellished by persistent triplets in the piano, the modified theme is assigned to a woodwind complement. The ensuing variation is quiet and contemplative, as if the piano were ruminating upon a subject kept alive by an echo in the horns. Glassy thirds (designated freddo, cold) seal the thoughtful interlude, whereupon a rhythm of brutal force propels the fifth variation, a brilliant metamorphosis of the theme that revolves upon satanic, pounding figures. With the coda the theme returns in its original tempo, but now the time values are doubled. Feather-light piano chords accompany the orchestral melody gently. The narrative quality that shadows the variations, as the theme has grown more elusive, is affirmed by a cadence that seems to conclude, “And that is how it happened.”
Bassoons state the finale’s droll refrain, angular and rhythmic. The burlesque manner soon gives way to turbulent excitement and ceaseless, swift motion. A second theme is equally frenetic. However, the deportment of these striking ideas turns out to be misleading, for what governs the movement is the outpouring of a passionate, singing theme that takes over when the pace slackens, Meno mosso, so that the oboe and clarinet may present the smooth, sighing strain. In the same tempo the piano introduces yet another subject, opaline in texture and deep in feeling, hinting at the lyricism of the Prokofiev operas to come. An exploration of the first of these themes spurs the music to a surging climax, whereupon its raptures are dispelled by the allegro refrain, freshly treated as it sweeps the music to a hypnotic close.
Prokofiev often performed this work with Serge Koussevitzky, whom he once advised: “Let the maestro be calm. This is not a Stravinsky score—there are no complicated meters, no dirty tricks.”
—Mary Ann Feldman
This note originally appeared in the program book of The Minnesota Orchestra and is reprinted here by permission.
More About the Music
Recordings: Martha Argerich, with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals) | Yefim Bronfman, with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic (Sony) | Horacio Gutiérrez, with Neeme Järvi and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Chandos)
Reading: Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking) | Prokofiev: A Biography, From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale University Press) | Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, edited and translated by Robinson (Northeastern University Press) | Prokofiev’s Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by Oleg Prokofiev (Faber and Faber) | Prokofiev’s Diaries, 1907-1914: Prodigious Youth, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips (Cornell University Press) | Sergei Prokofiev: His Musical Life, by Israel Vladimirovich Nestyev (Knopf)