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)
1 Before his graduation from the St.Petersburg Conservatory in 1914, Prokofiev competed for the Rubinstein prize. What made this prize so attractive was the grand piano awarded to its winner.
2 According to Prokofiev, his most serious competitor was Golubovskaia, a pupil of Liapunov, and “a very subtle and intelligent pianist”. Knowing the competition he faced, Prokofiev developed a strategy for winning. “While I might not be able to compete successfully in performance of a classical concerto, there was a chance that my own might impress the examiners by its novelty of technique; they simply would not be able to judge whether I was playing it well or not!” (Autobiography).
3 Sergei Prokofiev, as quoted by Harlow Robinson in Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987), p. 86.
4 Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and other writings, translated and edited by Oleg Prokofiev and Christopher Palmer, (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 23.
“The First Concerto was perhaps my first more or less mature composition as regards both conception and fulfilment.”
A product of his student days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, this early concerto shows us Prokofiev playing “football” at the keyboard. The opening theme boldly announces “Here I Am!” Prokofiev doesn’t dwell on subtleties here. That will be saved for his Second Concerto. The First Concerto is all about showmanship.
How clever of Prokofiev to choose this concerto over the second to compete for the coveted 1914 Rubinstein prize.(1) He knew that his piano playing did not possess that level of polish to produce a “sublime” performance of a Mozart or Beethoven piano concerto; yet he was confident he could impress the judges with his unique brand of pianism, even though he was not the most gifted pianist entering the contest.(2) Determined to win the prize, he calculated rightly that the Second Concerto with its four extended movements was definitely too long and too difficult to prepare, whereas the First was short, concise, filled with sudden contrasts, brilliant bravura and a dazzling cadenza, guaranteed to attract the judges’ attention. Within this first work for piano and orchestra, Prokofiev proves that he knows what works best at the keyboard, not only technically but visually, too. This pianism pervades all of his concertos, but be careful not to accuse him of just empty virtuosity or underestimate the solid structural foundation and melodic and harmonic framework of this early work.
Conceived more as a concertino for piano with orchestra than a true solo concerto, this short one-movement work begins with a joyful introductory theme that functions as a unifying element for the formal structure. Prokofiev called these three thematic statements “the three whales that hold the concerto together.”(3) How far he has travelled since writing his overly sectional First Piano Sonata. Here the outlines of the four contrasting sections are moulded into the three-part sonata design with the brilliant solo cadenza featured as the structural central climax of the entire work. Even in his student years, Prokofiev was a master at manipulating and stretching the form, always trying to make it more flexible. My only criticism of the work is that it always seems to end too quickly!
Only two years separate the First and Second Concerto, but even within this early work, all the elements of the mature Prokofiev are in place, although not yet fully ripened: the humour and wit; the toccata element; the romantic lyricism, most prominently displayed in the Andante movement; the virtuosity; the well crafted form, and the very sharp and surprising harmonic language. Certainly, the First is the leaner, more direct statement, providing only a skeletal outline, a distillation of the musically and pianistically richer Second. There is far less meat on the bones of the First’s cadenza than the Second’s colossale statement, but the extremes of the keyboard are effectively exploited and Prokofiev demonstrates a wide colour palette using strong, sudden contrasts. In general, piano acrobatics overpower lyricism, but it is there if you search for it.
Yes, all of Prokofiev’s calculations paid off (he even arranged with his publisher to have scores printed for the judges!); the First Concerto won him the prize although not everyone was pleased with the outcome. Certainly Alexander Glazunov, the director of the St.Petersburg Conservatory would have agreed with this critic’s opinion: “The critic [Kankarovich] having castigated my First Concerto went on to reinforce his criticism in the following sentence: ‘The conductor, Pazovsky, who was sitting next to me, said it sounded to him like a lot of lunatics racing about.’ (4) Next Back