Piano Concerto No.5 in G major, Op.55 (1932)
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)
10 Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary, p. 294.
“I searched for a ‘new simplicity’ only to discover that this new simplicity, with its novel forms, and, chiefly, new tonal structure was not understood. The fact that here and there my efforts to write simply were not successful is beside the point. I did not give up, hoping that the bulk of my music would in time prove to be quite simple when the ear grew accustomed to the new melodies, that is, when the melodies became the accepted idiom.” (10)
Prokofiev identified the problem facing all composers: is there anything original left to say without repetition of old formulae? In his final piano concerto the composer earnestly searches for a “new simplicity”, and instead, produces a new complexity both for the listener and performer. Written during Prokofiev’s Paris years, the Fifth is the least accessible of all his piano concertos, never achieving a true popular success.
Certainly this is not the Prokofiev of the Second and Third Concertos. Here the style is much leaner, more angular and generally devoid of its usual dramatic bravura pianism. The athletic, physically demanding piano writing with its wide and awkward leaps, shifting registers, crossed hands, jabbing off-beat accents and numerous meter changes does not fit comfortably under the hands and fingers. As in his Fifth Piano Sonata, Prokofiev purposely veils his natural pianistic instincts, preferring instead to imitate Stravinsky’s rather prickly approach at the keyboard. Generally lacking any cohesive unity of style, this five-movement work can be reduced to a series of alternating episodes, more in the character of a light-weight diversion. Resembling movements from a serenade or divertissement, their formal design is basically three-part. Although spiced with plenty of dissonance, the harmonic language does not stray far from G major and its closely related keys, with the opposing forces of the piano and orchestra mainly responsible for much of the dissonance. More importantly, the final concerto does not give birth to even one memorable melody (in spite of an over-profusion of melodic content) within its five movements, and not one movement equals the dramatic weight found in the Second or Third concerto movements. (The Larghetto movement comes closest.)
Prokofiev attempts to adopt a new language, but refuses to speak it all the time. Unwilling to totally commit, the “Russian Liszt” and his nineteenth-century roots play a cameo role throughout the work. The angularity of the first and third movements recalls Stravinsky’s influence, combined with Prokofiev’s overzealousness to be perceived as new and modern by a critical French public. Yet echoes of old Russia can also be heard in the folk-like themes found within the second and fourth movements. The well-known Prokofiev, the man with the sharp tongue and caustic wit, constantly resurfaces. The opening of the second movement march recalls one of Prokofiev’s signature pieces, his March from Love for Three Oranges. The innate lyricism of a sentimental Russian romantic is also exposed in the first movement’s second subject and the opening of the fourth movement Larghetto. With this haunting theme, Prokofiev provides a hint of what will be revealed later in the soulful Andante caloroso of the Seventh Sonata. Even his child-like innocence, his sense of fun and swagger makes an appearance in the finale’s second theme, and looks forward to Peter and the Wolf. It’s as if Prokofiev cannot decide which way to go, which route to choose, what face to show, should he play the intellectual or the Russian peasant.
The question remains: did Prokofiev totally succeed in creating a new language – achieving a “new simplicity” within his final Concerto? That feeling of inevitability, usually linked to the cohesive stylistic unity associated with any great piece of music, seems generally to be lacking; a strong personal identification, an inner connection between the composer and this work just isn’t there. Personally, I miss his uniqueness – his spontaneity, freshness and joy at the keyboard.
Undoubtedly, Prokofiev was bothered by the luke-warm reception that greeted his final piano concerto. Could this have contributed in part to Prokofiev’s decision to return to his Russian roots, or did he intuitively sense the real and imminent danger of losing his natural voice, and decide it was time to go home to retrieve it? Nevertheless, I certainly agree with Prokofiev: underneath the complicated writing, there does exist an underlying simplicity. Although not obvious initially, it awaits our discovery.
All five Piano Concertos combine to paint a vivid, cubist portrait of Serge Prokofiev. The question remains though: which one captures the “real” Prokofiev? Back