Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 1

I really like Mr. Ashkenazy. He’s such a nice guy, it seems. There seems to be not an ounce of pride or ego in the man, just a genuine, sincere musician who’s also a family man and a fantastic conductor. I will say I haven’t cared for his Chopin recordings as much as his Russian repertoire, but he still just seems super pleasant.
But this isn’t really about him; it’s about another Russian who I’ve come to like quite a bit: Prokofiev. It was only about a month ago that another of his pieces showed up here, his symphony number seven, which I adore. We’ve also done his piano concerto no. 2 and his first symphony as well as his fourth (which I must get back around to and shouldn’t even link to here) (I later revisited it here and here). He may be one of the most popular composers on the site, along with Ravel and Sibelius and Mahler, and soon Tchaikovsky.
I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s such a sense of personality and uniqueness and emotion in his work that is quite compelling. This concerto is no different.

While this piano concerto and his “classical” symphony are both firsts, their styles are quite different, and although there’s only a five-year span or so between the two, the piano concerto shows quite some individuality already. It had its premiere in the summer of 1912 in Moscow, the composer at the piano.

It’s the shortest of Prokofiev’s five completed concerti for the piano, and his first concerto for any instrument. Not long thereafter he wrote his second piano concerto and his first violin concerto.
This piece was also used cleverly to win the Anton Rubinstein prize in 1914. The work had apparently been premiered but not published. Prokofiev insightfully decided he would have a better chance at winning the competition with his own piece, since the judges at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory would be “unable to judge whether he was playing it well or not.” That was a slick move, but the rules of the competition required the piece be published. Undeterred, he found a publisher willing to print 20 copies on short notice and submitted his manuscript for the competition. The performance was apparently a success, and the jury, headed by Alexander Glazunov, awarded the prize to Prokofiev, “albeit rather reluctantly,” says Wikipedia.
The first movement opens with a swelling, expansive theme with strings and piano, and it almost feels like an in medias res sort of beginning. This is the longest movement of the three. We work through that beginning, kind of slowly climbing up to a high point in the swell of this section, then there’s what I feel to be a very typical-sounding Prokofiev-ian passage of fast, mischievous, exciting idiomatic writing for the piano alone. I would say it’s a cadenza, because it sounds sufficiently virtuosic, but there’s little wisps of orchestra in the background here and there. Even this is still just slightly removed from the opening theme, just in a different personality, if that makes any sense. It almost feels like the piano is fighting off the strings and their opening theme from coming back. Almost exactly halfway through the piece, there’s a dramatic change of pace and emotion, and it gets almost dark. The strings suddenly become suspenseful and border on haunting. There’s a nice drama in the contrast between this middle section and the wide open sprawling beauty of the opening. The listener isn’t quite sure where we’re headed yet, but the piano does some chromatic business, and everything starts to fall back into place and build momentum again. The strings’ theme returns in all its glory while the piano continues to do its thing, almost ignorant of what the strings are up to, but somehow in complete step with one another. The movement surpassingly ends on a quiet note from the piano, and we’re done with the largest section of this concerto.
The second movement reminds me a great deal of the emotion in his second concerto. This is surprising, because the second piano concerto is riddled, laced, even, from one end to the other with sarcasm, sadness, anger, frustration and depth. It’s a heavy, intense piece, but this one doesn’t feel that way. There’s drama in the opening movement, for sure, but it’s generally light and fresh and wonderful. One would expect the middle movement to be in like manner, and it starts that way, typical of a slow movement, with a clarinet entering over the strings. It’s all quite pleasant for a while. The piano enters… almost ethereal in nature, a similarly expansive nature at first, but in a much calmer, relaxing way. I swear that at 1:43 in this recording, there’s a direct quote from the second concerto (well, the reverse, I guess), when the piano climbs in a (chromatic?) scale over the ensemble in the background. As familiar as I am with the second concerto, it’s almost haunting to hear a precursor or suggestion to it in this earlier work, especially since the second concerto was dedicated to his dear friend who committed suicide. Much of the piano action in this piece sounds so much to me like a more tranquil version of the first movement of the second concerto. There’s bassoon and trumpet with strings in the background rather than growling brass, but it does reach a climax in the middle section, where it gets far more aggressive (almost the three-minute mark) and intense, still soaring, but definitely quite dark. It slowly trickles away, almost fizzles out… there’s not much left in this movement thematically, and it doesn’t even feel like it’s in any kind of ternary form of any kind. Not sure, thought. The woodwinds bring us to a close of this movement in a strangely dissonant, weird, haunting kind of chord, punctuated by a few low notes from the piano.
The third movement begins almost sort of attacca, although i’m not sure if it’s actually the case. It begins in the same manner the second movement ended, with low sole notes on the piano. It begins with a chattery theme from the piano with the orchestra slowly entering to accompany what sounds almost similar to the Prokofiev-ian bit from the first movement, and indeed the expansive Db theme does come back toward the end to bookend the piece. At least in the recording I have, this movement is the shortest. It also feels the most playful, sarcastic, and texturally and orchestrally diverse. The interaction between the piano and ensemble is exciting, and there are some really fun parts rhythmically and otherwise. It almost feels…. like some kind of caricature. There’s an intense, fun, but rather frenetic kind of energy in this movement, but almost a bit… too fun or whimsical in its approach. Just when I begin to feel like the movement is written entirely for fun, that Db theme comes back and it all kind of makes sense and comes together. The piece ends crisply.
This piece makes me think a few things. One is that a piece can feel complete and self-contained without the antics and repeats and drawing out that a Brahmsian piece might have. This entire concerto is shorter than many movements of other concerti. There’s nothing wrong with that, and while this piece doesn’t move me deeply quite the way some others do, it’s the full package, even if it’s just a much smaller one. It’s more along the lines of Liszt’s first, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s piano concerto, compact, fully contained, rich, expressive, and absolutely Prokofiev. I almost feel like this piece was written FOR entry into a competition instead of used later for that purpose, because it feels joking and mischievous.
On the other hand, it’s also fascinating to see that what is so distinct and moving, even crushing, about the second symphony seems to have its roots here, in something that otherwise seems so playful and carefree. Is there a connection? It sounds so obvious to me, and I wonder whether that was a conscious decision or not.

 

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