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Friday, January 29, 2016

Prokofiev Lyrical, Prokofiev Grotesque

Hear all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos—performed by the pianists Daniil Trifonov, George Li, Alexander Toradze Sergei Redkin, and Sergei Babayan under conductor Valery Gergiev—Wednesday, February 24 at 7:30pm in the Howard Gilman Opera House in Folk, Form, and Fire: The Prokofiev Piano Concertos, part of the The Mariinsky at BAM.

Photo: Daniil Trifonov

By Robert Jackson Wood

Written between 1911 and 1932, Prokofiev’s piano concertos trade in tempered lyricism, sardonic mischief-making, and jackhammer virtuosity—often in the span of mere measures. Composed largely to showcase his own keyboard prowess, they also bookend a period of relative experimentation for the composer. In 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a decree ushering in what would become the doctrine of Socialist Realism—uplifting art that glorified the state was to supplant all self-indulgent modernist trifling—and Prokofiev, albeit cynically, would become one of its main musical emissaries. Though the provocateur in him found ways to persist during that time (see his Piano Sonata No.7, for example), few of his later works match the piano concertos in their brash commitment to innovation without fear of reproach.

Concerto No. 1 (1911)
The opening fooled everyone: a minute and ten seconds of unabashed romantic indulgence, accomplished by an obsessive three-note motive in the piano and strings that might have made Rachmaninoff himself blush (0:17). But then, mania: a staccato barrage of sixteenth notes, punctuated by all-or-nothing leaps up the keyboard, signaling that Prokofiev’s place on the concerto stage was not to be a regressive one. Premiered by the then-student composer himself in 1912 amid considerable fanfare surrounding his gifts as a pianist, Prokofiev’s first concerto helped to confirm his reputation as a bona fide virtuoso. Apparently, he was also happy with the results; instead of playing a Beethoven or Brahms concerto that year in a student competition (as would have been the norm), Prokofiev opted to play his own.

Concerto No. 2 (1913)

Like a “dragon devouring its young.” That’s how pianist Sviatoslav Richter described the sinister “Intermezzo” movement (17:20) of Prokofiev’s next entry into the piano concerto repertoire, begun only a few months after the premiere of his first. If creatural infanticide wasn’t exactly the composer’s guiding idea here, a desire to depart from what he called the “surface brilliance” of the first concerto certainly was. Proof is in the introductory andantino: an icy piano figure, made up almost entirely of fourths and fifths, suspended precariously above a caustic soup of dissonant strings (00:40). In truth, what we know as the second concerto is actually a reconstruction Prokofiev made from sketches in 1924; the original was supposedly burned for warmth by his former flat mates during the Russian revolution.

Concerto No. 3 (1921)
In early 1918, on the eve of Civil War, Prokofiev took the last train out of Petrograd before the line was shut down for good by anti-Bolshevik forces. He was headed to America—not because of politics, but to become a star. Though Stravinsky’s buzz-worthy Rite of Spring wouldn’t premiere in the US until 1922, gossip surrounding the composer’s incendiary modernism had preceded him, eliding with a general wartime fascination with all things Russian and making the time supposedly ripe for a fellow modernist’s auspicious debut. So there was Prokofiev, emissary of “Godless Russia” and “Russian chaos in music,” as the headlines ballyhooed, debuting his third concerto with the Chicago Symphony. Several of the themes were culled from earlier projects. The opening clarinet line, for instance, was taken from an abandoned string quartet that was to use only the white notes of the piano keyboard. Reviews in Chicago were mixed, proving that Rachmaninoff was still America's Russian du jour. But audiences would soon come around; today, Prokofiev’s third concerto is a warhorse of the repertoire.

Concerto No. 4 (1931) 
The left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in WWI, was tough to please. Seeking to continue the concert career he’d begun shortly before the war, he set out to commission a series of left-hand-only works from the world’s most famous composers, but few of the results took. In Ravel’s radiant concerto for the left hand, the gold standard of the genre, the accompaniment was deemed too sparse. In Richard Strauss’s Panathenäenzug for piano and orchestra, it was too overbearing. “How can one hand compete with a quadruple orchestra?,” he complained. That an enfant terrible like Prokofiev would fare no better is no surprise. “Thank you very much,” Wittgenstein offered, “but I don’t understand a single note of it and shall not play it.” It was Wittgenstein’s loss, as indelible moments abound: an unhinged melody in the slow movement that switchbacks its way down to the depths (05:50), a sinister moderato movement in which piano channels bassoon (13:06), and enigma of an ending that evaporates into thin air (21:40).

Concerto No. 5 (1932)
In a letter to a friend on April 9, 1932, Prokofiev wrote: “The ‘Music for Piano and Orchestra’ is coming along, but unfortunately it’s turning out to be rather difficult for the pianist; I had been hoping to come up with a piece that was easy but effective.” In the end, what he came up with was the fifth and final concerto—effective but hardly easy—proving that, in matters of technique at least, the virtuoso in Prokofiev would always have the upper hand. The composer premiered it himself in Berlin, performing under Furtwängler. What remained of that initial desire for easiness was the brevity of the movements: five minutes on average, with one lasting only two. And yet all of Prokofiev was there: a vagabond, emphatically tonal lyricism; wraith-like swoops up and down the keyboard (5:24), and seductive sadisms of every sort.

Folk, Form & Fire: The Prokofiev Piano Concertos comes to BAM on Wed, Feb 24, and great seats are still available.

Robert Wood is a Senior Copywriter at BAM.

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