Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat,
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16 (1912-13) revised 1923
Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major,
Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat Major, Op.53, for the left hand (1931)
Piano Concerto No.5 in G major, Op.55 (1932)
I have always been attracted to Prokofiev’s special brand of pianism. His unabashed joy and respect for the instrument and its technical possibilities leap out to grab the listener. Certainly, Prokofiev has earned the right to wear the mantle of Franz Liszt; he continues the pianistic tradition but at the same time makes it sound fresh, new and spontaneous. By juxtaposing familiar things in unfamiliar ways, Prokofiev creates his own language, his unique way of melding the present with the future while building on the past.
For me as a pianist and a performer, the key to interpreting Prokofiev’s piano repertoire lies in first understanding the pianism from which it was conceived. The source of Prokofiev’s complexity springs from its dazzling virtuosity. Born within the music, virtuosity is never artificially imposed as an afterthought. However, once all the pianistic layers are stripped away and the technical obstacles mastered, the music can be reduced to simple melodic lines, tonal harmonies and a strong formal structural mould.
Spanning a period of twenty-one years (1911-1932), the five piano concertos reveal different aspects of Prokofiev’s special relationship with the keyboard. His many stylistic faces are etched and superimposed to form a multi-faceted pianistic portrait. The athletic First Concerto depicts the “bad boy” of the group; a young, brash Prokofiev painted in bold colours looks out at us with directness and youthful arrogance. Completed two years later, the mammoth Second Concerto, exposes the romantic heart hidden behind the bravura pianism. The lines on the face are more apparent; loss and pain have matured the virtuosity and subdued some of the acrobatics to reveal a depth of soul. Sunshine and light appear on the canvas with the bright, smiling colours of C major, in perfect harmony with the well-proportioned form of the three-movement Third Concerto. A more formal Prokofiev tempers the fireworks, always behaving as a proper gentleman. Only one side of the composer’s face is on view in the Fourth Concerto, but how amazing to discover what is contained within that profile. Here is the stand-up comic: humorous and witty, occasionally sarcastic, often touching, and constantly bragging about what he can do with only one hand. The Fifth Concerto suggests the image of the circus performer, swinging through the air on the trapeze while demonstrating stunning acrobatic feats without fear and, of course, without a safety net.
Each concerto accurately reflects the time and place of its composition and also demonstrates the diverse opinions that Prokofiev’s music can evoke. Except for the Fourth Concerto, which was performed three years after Prokofiev’s death, all of these works received their first performance by the composer who frequently performed them on tour. The First and Second came out of Prokofiev's conservatory days. Completed in 1921 and premiered in Chicago, the Third Concerto was sketched as from 1917 and emerges from the same Russian period as the Classical Symphony. The Fourth and Fifth are representative of Prokofiev's difficult, restless and rootless period in Paris and share many of the characteristics of the solo works written during this time.
Listening to these compositions, there is no doubt that only an extraordinary pianist with an in-depth and intimate knowledge of the keyboard’s potential resources could have written such piano music. Prokofiev was a master at imitating orchestral sonorities and experimenting with rich colour possibilities. He knew how to exploit the extreme registers of the instrument so that the piano would be capable of cutting through his orchestration. Each concerto qualifies as a virtuosic showpiece, each with its own distinctive brand of bravura. Next