performed by the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, Yefim Bronfman, piano
(while I mention Wang below, and Argerich many times, I do quite enjoy Bronfman’s performance here. It’s a new album for me and I was pleased enough to listen to it instead of the other Argerich recordings and Wang’s with Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra; they’re all great)
The above is of the wonderful Yuja Wang and the Concertgebouw, under their (soon-to-be) new maestro, Daniele Gatti.
The above is of Ms. Martha Argerich herself. The first recording I had of this piece was of her and the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado. She kind of owns this piece. She appears here with her (at the time perhaps not yet) ex-husband and an orchestra (Suisse Romande?) in frighteningly incredible performance (watch how she gives hubby some feedback after the first movement)
I’ve decided Prokofiev is the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. of classical music. That came to me riding a bike the other day, a small train of thought prompted by the word “slaughterhouse” and recollection of Vonnegut’s writing style. He handles serious, very heavy topics in a humorous, darkly sarcastic and witty manner. I feel in many of his works, Prokofiev does the same, and there’s lots of sarcasm in this piece.
It is/was a warhorse of Ms. Argerich for sometime, and I was 100% ready to give this piece to her until I heard Yuja Wang’s recording with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Abbado. She’s spectacular, and the recording quality is superb, which is part of the reason I included the above video of her with a different ensemble. If you want to see Ms. Argerich at her breakneck pace best, check out the second video above. Watch them all.
The third piano concerto was completed in 1921 from sketches that date from as early 1913 that were to be a theme-and-variations. It has a pretty standard orchestration, and quite a star-studded
past. The composer himself premiered the piece on December 16, 1921 with the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock. It didn’t meet with immediate praise, but after Koussevitzky (the man who, again, seemed to be everywhere) conducted it in Paris in 1922, it met with great acclaim. The Soviet premiere was a few years later, in 1925, performed by Samuil Feinberg and the Orchestra of the Theatre of the Revolution under the baton of Konstantin Saradzhev.
The composer also made the first recording of the piece in 1932 with the London Symphony, and is the only recording of Prokofiev playing one of his own works.
It’s in three movements of roughly equal length, totaling just under a half hour, although it doesn’t feel that way.
That’s probably because I’ve been listening to tons of Mahler lately, so a dainty little three movement work of a half hour feels…. like diet classical.
The first movement seems to have remnants of the second concerto leftover. It’s not nearly as sardonic or dark, but at least suggests it at times, it feels.
The movement opens pleasingly with a clarinet solo, almost a lullaby, and strings enter, gorgeously, to create what sounds like almost cliche-ishly tender film score music. Just as I start to wonder where this is headed, the strings are heard revving up, kind and the piano rather gallops into the scene to catch up. Everything is suddenly very energetic and slightly chaotic. There’s a lot of material here, and it quickly feels VERY like Prokofiev, with dissonances and playful sarcasms here and there. Everything is everywhere and there’s chatter and chirping until it a lead in to a piano solo for a brief moment. The rhythms get really cool here, and this is the meat of the first movement. It’s mischievous and fun and interesting; satisfyingly, that beautiful theme from the solo clarinet does return in the full orchestra, and it’s lush and lyrical.
Who doesn’t love a good theme and variations movement? That is what we have here. The movement opens with a gavotte, a sneaky, dark sort of humorous but catchy gavotte. It’s kind of enticing and alluring. That’s the first of the five. The first variation, quite close to a restatement of this first theme, but with less of a dance-like momentum, is presented by the piano, who enters with a flowery glissando. There are a lot of elaborations before the piano enters a trill and the original theme comes back. The second variation ‘allegro’ is just that, with the main theme showing up first in trumpet. This little passage comes back in the finale too. The piano is quite busy throughout a lot of this concerto, and this passage is one of the most lively, but it ends abruptly and almost tragic-sounding.
The third variation is a clunky kind of lumbering jumpy thing, and the fourth comes after a pause that makes the movement seem like it’s nearing a close. The fourth returns to a more obvious version of the main theme, but spacious, haunting and kind of wafty. Ethereal. Spooky, but not entirely dark. There are some more playful glimpses for a few seconds, but this is the quietest, most pensive section of the whole piece. It is quickly over though, and another frantic section appears with the fifth variation. This variation is made to top the third with the piano playing in double-time, and then the coda that quiets down and leads into the wonderful third movement.
It begins with bassoons (how great!) introducing the main subject and has kind of its own almost-dance-like driving energy. While the entire piece has shown a very active role played by the orchestra thus far, this piece is actually referred to by the composer as an “argument” and it has an exciting back and forth kind of nature. You’ll recognize suggestions from the second movement before a quiet passage that sounds of the same cloth as the opening rich strings. The piano and the orchestra still play against each other here, but beautifully, and still with Prokofiev’s well-placed dissonances. This ethereal-ness swells and subsides a few times.
This movement is in three major sections. The first is busy and ‘argumentative’, but tempered by a quiet middle section. The main subject then returns before a long, intense coda.
The piano starts doing generally more and more crazy things over the slightly less crazy things the orchestra is doing. The coda is by far the most virtuosic section of the piece, and the tension and energy keeps building. There are a few key changes in this movement (it begins in Am), but as the piano climbs and climbs and this giant snowball of a coda builds, the piece eventually finishes spine tinglingly as it reaches the home key of C major.
The above is a compilation of Ms. Argerich playing ridiculously scary looking octave passages from different pieces. The Prokofiev shows up once here and again here at the very end. You must watch her facial expression as she finishes safely.
Watch the above video, or at least the two links in the caption to get an idea of how demanding this piece really is.
This piece is all those words I’ve over used here before: exciting, lively, energetic, thrilling, whatever. But it’s also for contrast. Not every moment of every piece can be white-knuckled beat-you-to-death kind of energy, and Prokofiev’s quiet moments are just as riveting in their peacefulness or wonder or mischief.
I have always kind of associated Ravel and Prokofiev. I know they’re entirely different people with entirely different arts, but I really enjoy their music for often similar reasons. If Prokofiev is Vonnegut…. I thought for ages about who Ravel would be. Not Joyce, but perhaps Salinger, but not as unwieldy as that. I don’t know.
This is quite a famous concerto, likely Prokofiev’s most enduring, and while it isn’t a favorite of mine (certainly nothing like the Rachmaninoff piece last week, or even Scriabin’s concerto I love so much), it is enjoyable, mostly because even if you don’t particularly enjoy the style (as one friend commented to me the other day about Prokofiev in general), one can still appreciate his ingenuity, creativity, and skill with how he treats his subjects, develops ideas, and keep everything fun and interesting. Nothing drags on for too long. He’s Vonnegut. Have you ever seen the two of them in the same place?