Prokofiev Piano Concertos

Prokofiev Piano Concertos

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

What I’m writing about this week:

Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) and his five piano concertos. Also, concertos by Huw Watkins (b. 1976). Plus, backstory from W. A. Mozart, especially his twenty-odd piano concertos and last two symphonies.


Because those Prokofiev concertos are worth hearing, and they tell us a lot about how and why 20th-century music developed in the odd ways it did. Prokofiev was whip-smart and spoiled half-rotten. Like a lot of precocious young people, he couldn’t abide stupidity, which seemed to run rampant in the universe. He got into the Saint Petersburg Conservatory when he was 13 but gave his teachers, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov, a rough time. After squeaking through their composition curriculum, he thought he’d give piano and conducting a try. There he did better, possibly because he’d grown up a bit. His piano teacher Anna Esipova threatened to expel him if he didn’t buckle down, so he did: Prokofiev’s deficiencies lay not in technical acumen but in a reluctance to cultivate tonal warmth or lyricism. (He wasn’t overly fond of Mozart or Schubert either.) His conducting mentor Tcherepnin helped by encouraging him to explore the newest creative trends.

You might think experimenting comes naturally to clever youngsters, but it doesn’t. They can be disinclined to venture onto fresh pathways. It’s easier to show people how clever you are by doing the standard stuff but way better. Sergei Sergeyovich’s difficulties point up the way that cultures shift over time. Twentieth-century musical culture shifted very fast; talented children like Prokofiev had to shift with it. He struggled with a genre that Mozart, living in a more stable era, had already perfected: the keyboard concerto.

Consider the disruptions of the new century: hard on the heels of the Great War came the two Russian revolutions of 1917, fomented by growing unrest from 1905 onward and capped by creation of the USSR in 1922. In 1910 Prokofiev’s father died, leaving the family far less secure and forcing the young composer-pianist to consider how he would make a living. In 1914 he made the first of many trips abroad, making contact with influential members of the artistic avant-garde including Diaghilev and Stravinsky. The latter would become an important but seldom-acknowledged influence.

Around 1920 Prokofiev settled in Paris. His professional activities for the next fifteen years were increasingly successful, so it shocked some observers when, in 1936, he decided to return to Mother Russia. Why? Homesickness. In spite of the cosmopolitan company he kept, most of his friends in the West were Russian emigrés. He longed for the ready intellectual stimulation of those like Myaskovsky and Asafyev, who had remained behind. Prokofiev was also quite naïve about political developments in his homeland; he couldn’t foresee the catastrophic social effects and personal suffering that Stalinization would bring.

Prokofiev’s five piano concertos were composed between 1911 and 1932. As a Russian expatriate and “novelty act” for most of that period, he was automatically placed in competition with two countrymen, Stravinsky the scandalous provocateur and Rachmaninoff the late-great-Romantic piano wizard. Sergei P. struggled to balance virtuoso display with authentic personal expression, while facing a constant demand—from critics, from audiences, from his own notion of genius—for something genuinely new.

In 2016, when Vadym Kholodenko’s first SACD came out (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807631), what fun it was to hear Concertos 2 and 5! I didn’t know either work at the time, and they were radically dissimilar. No. 2 was virtually a student composition; Prokofiev wanted to show off every part of his game. It’s in four movements, the outer two of which are lengthy, ponderous, and rhapsodic in the manner of Liszt, with enormous solo cadenzas that can bring the action to a standstill. If you want to understand No. 2 in context, you’ll need to absorb No. 1, completed a few months earlier. That was Prokofiev’s graduation piece: he played it at his “leaving recital” in 1914 and walked off with the Rubinstein Prize. Its Tchaikovskian opening theme (which returns several times, including at the very end of the work) leaves no doubt as to the identity of the triumphant hero—it’s our young composer.

I eagerly awaited Kholodenko’s volume 2, with concertos 1, 3, and 4. But then three years elapsed, perhaps because of the Fort Worth Symphony strike and/or because Harmonia Mundi’s new owner shuttered its Production USA wing and pink-slipped producer Robina Young (who “continues to consult”). In the meantime, pianist Olli Mustonen released both of his Prokofiev concerto discs for Ondine. They are more than competitive. Backed by the Finnish Radio SO and conductor Hannu Lintu, Mustonen delivers what may be the first truly definitive set of the 21st century. I’ve made it my reference, even though I still enjoy Kholodenko’s now-available completion, which contains some stunning pianism and offers useful comparisons. Nevertheless, let’s hear a bit of Mustonen in No. 5. (And yes, that was Mustonen in the first clip too.)

No. 5 gives us Prokofiev, in Paris in 1932, doing his best to borrow some of Stravinsky’s “new simplicity” (I think of it as musical Cubism): phrases of uneven length that may end abruptly; octave displacements in the melody; eccentric percussion accents; unexpected changes of timbre or texture. It’s in five movements, all relatively short—another Stravinskian trick, and a logical outcome of the quirky style within. But Prokofiev had trouble making the new sounds an integral part of his language. Although he strove for simplicity, he conceded that “in the end it turned out to be complicated.” A preening, scampering second movement, self-consciously arch, is followed by more slaps and bumps in the Toccata. Finally the Larghetto offers welcome relief:

As you heard, a hyperactive interlude ushers in more of the old Prokofiev—grandiose lyricism anchored by brass attacks, bass-drum thwacks, and more.

Prokofiev’s best piano concertos may be those from the middle of the stack: No. 3, written in fits and starts between 1913 and ‘21; and No. 4, written in 1931 for left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who never played it. We know No. 3 because it became a favorite of many celebrated artists including Martha Argerich. Well, who can blame them? In the right hands, it’s a perfect energy machine.


Incidentally, this isn’t the only Prokofiev concerto with a trick opening, in which the first few bars suggest a piece other than the one you’re actually about to hear. But it’s certainly one of the best such sneak attacks.

Tricks do not abound in No. 4, and that’s also nice. One gets the feeling that Prokofiev, freed from the burden of presenting his own “personality,” was able to get on with producing gorgeous absolute music. Certainly the Andante contains more than its share of grave beauty, never straining for effect.

The following Moderato offers another “monumental” march, its symphonic weight enlisted shrewdly and economically (perhaps because Prokofiev wanted to avoid swamping his one-handed soloist).

And now a word from our Ghostly Sponsor, i.e., Mozart: if you want to “get” the Tema con variazioni of Prokofiev’s No. 3 or the tag ending of No. 4—two minutes’ worth of fun following the Moderato—you should check out the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G, K453 (23:00 in the video below). Compare his way of using variation form to structure a narrative.


Then, if you’re still in need of fun, try Huw Watkins’s Flute Concerto. Like Mozart and Prokofiev, Mr. Watkins is a born dramatist. I’m not sure whether his organic means of creating a narrative owes much to them, though. (He’s definitely the new master of the trick ending, but that’s another story.)


More Short Takes:

Bill Frisell: Epistrophy (ECM). Second of two live sets from dates at the Village Vanguard with bassist Thomas Morgan. Mixes Frisell’s trademark Americana with quirky post-bop treatments of jazz standards. Cerebral fun of the first order.

Caroline Shaw / Attacca Quartet: Orange (New Amsterdam / Nonesuch). This group and this composer seem made for each other. Engaging, enjoyable acoustic minimalism with surprises.

Josef Mysliveček: Complete Music for Keyboard. Clare Hammond, piano; Swedish CO, Nicholas McGegan cond. (BIS). Two keyboard concertos, six Easy Divertimenti, and another six Easy Lessons from a friend and contemporary of Mozart, neglected by German historians and critics because he was Czech and based in Italy. Spirited, elegant performances on a Steinway D, ably abetted by a reigning master of Baroque HIP. Crystalline recorded sound.

Mozart: Symphonies No. 40 & 41. NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze cond. (Pentatone). Another warhorse pairing from Manze, and one of his very best. You don’t “need” this, but its razor-sharp execution and glistening sound make it hard to resist.

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