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Prokofiev (1891-1953) – Piano Concerto No. 3

All composers sit somewhere on the line between the extremes of “artistic” and “commercial” imperatives. Such as Borodin and Mahler hovered close to the former extreme, whilst the John Williamses of this world are wedged firmly at the latter. Much as we’d like to believe that Great Music is above Grubby Money, the fact remains that even composers have to eat. There are many ways to juggle the balance between “doing your own thing” and raking in the brass. Being a “composer-performer” is just one, and Prokofiev was just one such - a composer-pianist. The financial advantages were that, as his performing reputation grew, so did his licence to promote his own works and, should these not find favour, he could still earn his crust by performing. Composing and performing his own concertos was a natural career progression. 

By all accounts, Prokofiev revelled in shock-tactics. A pupil of Gliere at 11, then Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov at 13, he inevitably developed an acute sense of colour and a strong feel for the lyrical line. Back then, Russian music’s most alarming sounds came from Mussorgsky, who had died when Prokofiev was Minus 10. So, whence came the mischievous streak that surfaced in the 20-year old's First Piano Concerto, which so offended Glazunov? Was it from Glazunov's own active encouragement of cultural cross-fertilisation with Western Europe? If so, it seems that Glazunov scalded his fingers on his own boiled fruit. 

The Second Concerto (1913) stands apart in its almost entirely pervasive, red-eyed rage. It incorporates not just grief over, but also anger at the wasteful loss of his great friend, Maximilian Schmidthof. Apparently, the original score was even more alarming than the surviving revision: Prokofiev’s friend Vyacheslav Karatïgin described its première as “leaving [us] frozen with fright, hair standing on end.” It also demonstrated the effectiveness of Prokofiev’s modus operandi, because he survived the resultant outrage, and went on to greater things. 

One of those “greater things” was the Third Concerto. By 1916, Prokofiev believed it sufficiently advanced to include in his opus list, but then he was inconvenienced - if that’s not too mild a word - by the October Revolution. The concerto went on the back burner for five years. As it happens, this delay was probably beneficial because, like many who were reacting against post-Romantic excesses, Prokofiev was on a stylistic economy-drive. Nowhere was this more evident than in his First Symphony, but the exact same forces shaped this concerto – there’s a renewed focus on Classical cleanliness, with its purity of line and transparency of orchestration. 

However, certain babies avoided the bathwater’s fate. The enfant terrible’s outrageous impishness turned out to be part of his character – he grew not less mischievous but craftier of expression. Equally, his innate love of the lyrical line, nurtured by his teachers but submerged by his youthful “heavy metallicism”, bubbled up to the surface where it complemented, rather than supplanted, his acerbity. During that five-year delay this tangy cocktail of “sweet and sour” ripened, which partly explains the Third Concerto’s deservedly immense and enduring popularity. 

1. Andante – Allegro can feel confusingly rhapsodic, but only until you cotton onto Prokofiev’s brilliantly bifurcation of each of his main subjects. The soulful, lone clarinet’s melody is the first subject, on which the piano’s fast and furious first entry, launched by rushing strings, is a second, contrasting “take”. Similarly, the balletic second subject first appears on perky oboes and clacking castanets, whilst the piano’s “take” injects a distinct measure of vodka (nobody did “inebriation” like Prokofiev did!). The development, following some fierce orchestral outbursts alternating with motoric piano, is astonishing: the “soulful” first subject is first rendered ripely romantic, reverts to its original solo clarinet form, gets the “Rachmaninov” treatment from the soloist, and then drifts off into a dream-like world of its own. Reprise? Well, maybe this starts where the piano picks up that “rushing”, but what follows is anything but “repetition”! 

2. Tema con variazioni. The stately, march-like theme, tip-toeing on woodwind and strings, simply oozes “classical” - in spite of some harmonic mischief in which the piano is a willing collaborator. We might suspect, after the piano has set off like the clappers, that the strident first trumpet has also been at the vodka. The subsequent variation is more naively playful, the piano bouncing around like a golf ball in a squash court. Then – astonishment! It’s as if the ball-game had been interrupted by a vision of loveliness. The rowdy world recedes, veiled by impressionistic enchantment. Finally, a nervously pugilistic piano breaks the spell. A huge head of steam builds, then dissolves into the original theme. This, decorated by flickering piano arabesques finally dissolves with a pang of regret. 

3. Allegro, ma non troppo. Introduced by bassoons and strings, the main subject of this rondo (A-B-A-C-[I]-A-coda) is a curious little beast: it’s in ¾ time but it sounds like a march! The protagonists regard this ambivalence as a good enough excuse for some agile musical gymnastics. The skittering of B precipitates a much enlivened second A, running seamlessly into a brash and bumptious C. Then, resurrecting his ruse in the First Concerto, Prokofiev interpolates I, effectively an entire, breathtakingly beautiful slow movement. It’s easy to believe that Prokofiev is paying fond tribute to fellow-exile Rachmaninov, although you should take my suggestion that this was also Liberace’s stylistic inspiration with a pinch of salt. The conclusive A-coda develops a driving perpetuum mobile, building, rebuilding, crackling with febrile energy ?  a barn-storming conclusion that I would hardly call, as did Daniel Jaffé, “waltz-like”, even if it is in ¾ time! 

Of course, the big question is: what’s it all about? Equally of course, the answer is simple: “nothing” – this is classical music! 

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© Paul Serotsky
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