Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Concerto No. 3 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 26

BORN: April 23, 1891. Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine
DIED: March 5, 1953. Moscow

COMPOSED: He began his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1917 and completed it in Etretât, Brittany (France), in October 1921; in composing it he drew on material he had sketched through the preceding decade. The work is dedicated to the poet Konstantin Balmont, a Russian émigré neighbor of Prokofiev’s in Brittany

WORLD PREMIERE: December 16, 1921. The composer was soloist, with Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in Chicago

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1930. Prokofiev was also soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performance of this music, with Alfred Hertz conducting. MOST RECENT—July 2016. Makoto Ozone was soloist, with Edwin Outwater conducting, at the SFS Free Community Summer Concert at Pier 27

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, castanets, tambourine, cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 30 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Prokofiev had not yet become a full-time Parisian when he wrote his Third Piano Concerto, but he was already spending a good deal of time in France. Most of the spring and summer of 1921 he passed in a village on the coast of Brittany, socializing with a few other Russians who found themselves there (some of whom shared his passion for chess), nurturing the budding romance that was growing between him and the woman who would become his wife, and composing. Among Prokofiev’s neighbors was a Russian émigré poet, Konstantin Balmont. One day the composer played for Balmont from the new piano concerto he was composing, and Balmont responded by jotting verses inspired by what he heard:

Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,

In you, the orchestra yearns for forgotten summer sounds,

And the invincible Scythian beats on the tambourine of the sun.

. . . And so on. Not great poetry, but for his efforts Balmont was rewarded with the dedication of what reigns as the most popular of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos and, indeed, as one of the most popular concertos of the twentieth century.

The annals of Prokofieviana are filled with sketches for compositions that never reached completion. But Prokofiev was also a pragmatic composer, and rather than let perfectly good work go to waste he frequently recycled music intended for an unfinished project into one that held more promise. Such was the case with the Third Piano Concerto. He composed it mostly in 1921, but he drew on quite a few scraps of music that had come into being earlier and been intended originally for other pieces. As early as 1911 he was busy working on three piano concertos at once; one of them, which he reported would be “full of virtuoso passages,” ended up stillborn, but ideas Prokofiev had drafted for it would make their way into the Third Concerto a decade later. Similarly, the theme on which the second-movement variations are built dates back to 1913; and two themes from the concerto’s finale were penned in 1918, when they were intended for a string quartet.

THE MUSIC  The piece consists of three movements, a standard layout for a concerto but not for a Prokofiev concerto, as all his others conform to less usual patterns. It is famously difficult for the dexterity and stamina it requires of the soloist and, as a result, stands near the top of the list of ultra-virtuosic showpiece concertos. And yet this is no “show-off” concerto; it’s a work of passionate expression and flies from the keyboard with what sounds like bursts of spontaneity.

The first movement opens slowly, with the solo clarinet (quickly joined in harmony by a second clarinet, then by violins and flute) singing what sounds like a languorous Russian folk song (although apparently it is not). Still hushed, the music suddenly breaks into far faster tempo; after a few measures of rapid build-up played pizzicato by the strings, the piano enters with a sparkling melody of ringing authority. Once it enters, the piano will rarely be far from the fray, whether playing lightning-quick figuration or pounding emphatic chords, and much of the movement unrolls in the spirit of a perpetuum mobile. Prokofiev does, however, relax the pace to Andante to introduce a subordinate theme, which is actually the folk-like melody that had been briefly enunciated as a prelude. Here it is played mostly by the woodwinds, with the piano overlaying virtuosic filigrees; eventually even castanets are added to the texture.

The neoclassical second movement is structured as a slinky theme with five variations. Prokofiev described it: “The theme is announced by the orchestra alone, Andantino. In the first variation the piano treats the opening of the theme in quasi-sentimental fashion, and resolves into a chain of trills as the orchestra repeats the closing phrase. The tempo changes to Allegro for the second and third variations, and the piano has brilliant figures, while snatches of the theme are introduced here and there in the orchestra. In Variation IV the tempo is once again Andante, and the piano and orchestra discourse on the theme in a quiet and meditative fashion. Variation V is energetic. It leads without pause into a restatement of the theme by the orchestra, with delicate chordal embroidery in the piano.”

Prokofiev assigns to the finale the somewhat tempered marking Allegro ma non troppo (“Fast, but not too fast”). This may strike some as odd for a movement that seems to set an Olympic record for speed; but the note-values are themselves so quick that the movement is bound to sizzle. The theme is introduced by the two bassoons abetted by the low strings (playing pizzicato), and something about its contours may remind listeners of the corresponding melody from the first movement. The piano makes its appearance via a rocketing scale in the eighth measure, rather mimicking the procedure by which it introduced itself in the first movement. A thrilling race ensues, dashing through a panoply of episodes, in the course of which the principal theme pops up now and again. It’s a race to the finish, with the piano pounding out immense chords through the final pages, surrounded by blazing symphonic orchestration.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Behzod Abduraimov with Juraj Valčuha conducting the RAI National Symphony Orchestra (Decca)  |  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)

ReadingSergei 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) 

(March 2018)