Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat Major, Op.53, for the left hand (1931)
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.5 in G major, Op.55 (1932)
9 Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary, p. 293.
“I sent Wittgenstein my concerto and received this answer: ‘Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note of it and I shall not play it.’ And so this concerto has never been performed. I have not formed any definite opinion about it myself: sometimes I like it, sometimes I do not. I intend to write a two-hand version of it some time.” (9)
The response of the Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein to Prokofiev’s commissioned concerto should not have come as a surprise to Prokofiev. Wittgenstein certainly was not the first person to misunderstand Prokofiev’s intentions or his direct musical language. Prokofiev did not deliver the serious musical statement expected by Wittgenstein, who was probably offended by Prokofiev’s pianistic displays. Prokofiev was a natural performer, a bit of a “show-off” at the keyboard, who used his craft and facility to demonstrate how virtuosic he could be even when limited to one hand. This concerto resembles a butterfly, hard to catch, difficult to pinpoint, yet always free enough to fly away. I believe that Wittgenstein, with his serious Teutonic temperament and his intellectual need to categorise, was unable to hear or comprehend Prokofiev or his special sense of humour.
Written during Prokofiev’s Parisian period, the lean neo-classic style of Stravinsky surely must have influenced this colourful chamber concerto in four movements. Occasionally, we feel him standing behind Prokofiev, but his presence never negates Prokofiev’s natural pianism. Go back to the second-movement Scherzo of the Second Concerto to find Prokofiev’s inspiration for the outer movements’ semi-quaver perpetuum mobile passagework. Prokofiev uses these movements formally to enclose the more serious second and third movements. The slow second movement becomes a full-blown romantic lyrical statement, abounding in virtuosic nineteenth-century writing, reminiscent of Liszt’s pianism and Chopin’s embroidered melodic style. The third movement is an overblown, pompous scherzo, grotesque at times, but always amusing. The final movement, a short reprise of the first, functions as the coda of the entire work, played not fortissimo, as in the opening, but pianissimo throughout. The ending reminds me of the final bars of Rakhmaninov’s Paganini Variations: the last four measures affirm that after this musical work-out, the piece was intended as a funny joke!
The Fourth Concerto is a delightful work; however, it demands from the performer wit, charm and imagination – qualities that seem to have eluded Wittgenstein. Prokofiev had one more comment to make about Wittgenstein’s commission: “He may have turned it down but at least he paid me!” Next Back