Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.

Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto

If I had to construct a ‘fun’ scale for piano concerti, placing them according to the somewhat unmusical, and probably subjective criterion of how fun it is to perform them, Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto would occupy the top spot. It would face tough competition from Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2, Ravel’s Concerto in G and possibly Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, but were the placing done today, it would certainly reign supreme. It’s champagne-like fun, light and fizzy, leaving you exhilarated and cheered—and it accompanies both listener and performer from the first note to the last.

It would also place highly on the ‘least boring second movement’ list, do well on a ‘how ingenious is your sonata form’ test, and would have an excellent difficulty / effect ratio, that semi-secret measurement we are not supposed to disclose—as it is based on the fact that some of the most effective passages in music are actually not that difficult to play (unfortunately, the opposite is also sometimes true).

It’s electrifying in its energy levels, brilliantly inventive, full of humour—some of it cheerful, some spiky and sarcastic—yet with lyricism, genuine and unaffected, appearing in all three movements. In many ways it’s a mirror of Prokofiev the man, the way he appears to a reader of his diaries: reveling in the unexpected, the surprising, the shocking; thoroughly enjoying his enfant terrible reputation; but with an inner world that is complex both mentally and emotionally; with a soul that is sensitive to the beautiful; and, ultimately, with a good heart.

The paragraphs above were my original introduction to the concerto. Thinking of it in the following days, I realised that by stressing the fun factor—which is certainly there, and is very much a defining characteristic of the piece—I was perhaps not doing full justice to Prokofiev and the music. The music does not feel as a superficial display of virtuosity and brilliance; and in my opinion, the sections which are scary, or grotesque, or downright ugly, are not there just to shock the listeners—when practising or performing them they feel real and true.

We could also go to the other extreme, saying that Prokofiev was being cynical in the lyrical and cheerful sections, intending to show their naivety in face of the coming destruction. It seems to me that both approaches are somewhat one-sided. If we take both moods at face value—the cheerful and merry as real cheer and merriment, and the dark and ugly as real darkness and ugliness, both sincere and not a theatrical device—this could allow a reading of the concerto which, I think, is deeper and possibly more satisfying.

The abrupt transitions from one to the other (for example, the sparkling, 100% merry coda of the first movement [08:59], immediately following the scariest, ugliest section of that movement, the repeat of the grotesque march-cum-gavotte, with its heavy chords and skeletal castanets [08:14]) could then be seen as a reflection, whether intended or subconscious, of how close to each other those sentiments can be in real life; not dissimilar to how Mahler’s music easily accommodates the highs and lows of human life and emotion, sometimes within a single phrase.

And one other aside: Prokofiev finished composing the concerto in 1921, using musical material from 1918 (and possibly 1913); melodies which he noted down for a planned ‘White quartet’, White being the adjective used to collectively denote the various groups opposing Lenin’s adherents, the Bolsheviks, and their Red Army. His views of the 1917 October revolution, as expressed in his diaries, were far from sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause and it is not implausible to link the aggressive or malicious passages in the concerto to the bloodshed and destruction caused by the October revolution and the ensuing civil war (to say nothing of the fact that these two followed World War I). I cannot prove or disprove this conjecture, so would like to leave it for each reader’s and listener’s thought and imagination. For yet another angle, I would like to quote Prokofiev’s diary, from the entry of November the 30th, 1918, also repeated in those very words four days later:My art is without time and without place.

And now, without further ado, the listening guide:

First movement

It’s with lyricism that the concerto commences (00:08); a simple folk-like tune played by the clarinet, the warmest and most humane of the woodwind instruments. The sound of a second clarinet joins in at 00:20. I love how Prokofiev lets the second clarinet’s sound grow out of the first; it enters in unison with the first, and then, when the first clarinet starts moving, remains in place, giving an impression of the first clarinet’s sound splitting organically into two. The melody then ascends as a duet, and at the end of that ascent the music opens up into a magical soundscape (00:30): the first violins and flute take up the theme, floating high above the accompaniment in the lower strings. The effect is of a vast space, a hushed landscape of shimmering beauty. There’s also talented film direction in play—a close-up shot to start with, slowly zooming out, and then, suddenly, a wide-angle shot to take one’s breath away.

This is all very far from any enfant terrible-ness, and by the end of the short introduction Prokofiev, I think, is itching to dive into action; you can hear the anticipation at 00:40. The allegro proper launches with a series of exercise-like ascents in the strings (00:46; fizziness levels rising!) above a rhythmic accompaniment in the celli, double basses and timpani, and finally the piano enters at 00:53 with an energetic, quirky theme. Its first three notes are an inversion of the first three notes of the clarinet melody opening the concerto (at a much faster tempo), but apart from that, we’re definitely out of the world of folk tunes and dreamy landscapes. As was the case with most of his piano works until later in his life, Prokofiev was writing the concerto for himself as soloist—and wowing the audience with sheer brilliance was definitely a consideration.

The high energy levels are maintained for quite a while, with a series of interchanges between pianist and orchestra (01:16) suddenly erupting in a bout of scary barbaric marching at 01:35 with the woodwinds shrieking militantly above. Things continue on the heavy side, and the section culminates in a powerful march played by the piano (02:11); it gradually quietens down, shedding open warfare in favour of stealth—which leads seamlessly into the second theme (02:25).

This theme—a delight to perform, and, I think, to listen to—is a curious hybrid. Its accompaniment is a march, a continuation of the piano line directly before, now played by pizzicato violas and celli and the lower woodwinds. Its melody, however, is a kind of a grotesque gavotte, led by a nasal oboe and doubled by pizzicato violins, to which Prokofiev brilliantly adds castanets, for a morbid bone-clacking touch. The result is unsettling, and if the musicians so desire, can sound downright evil. The piano takes the theme from the orchestra at 02:39 and repeats it with honest-to-goodness nastiness, elegantly poisoned and sharp, the dance character becoming more pronounced. Then it’s back to the marching and the bony castanets, with the theme returning to the orchestra, and the piano accompanying it with small-note passages (02:53), and finally, back to the piano for one last repeat (03:06).

This leads into the closing section of the exposition, a seemingly simple three-note motif, alternating quickly between the pianist’s hands above the accompanying strings, but look how Prokofiev distributed the hands (this is a brilliant recording, by the way; very much worth listening to):

This way Prokofiev kills two compositional birds: it’s comfortable to play, and it looks pyrotechnically difficult.

The line goes up and down, quietening down, only to erupt again, at 03:48 and 03:57. The last quietening down with the subsequent buildup is longer, the tension is rising, and suddenly, at 04:12, we’re in the nature again—the opening lyrical theme returns in full orchestral splendour, a summer midday version of the frost-covered or moonlit landscape we saw at the beginning.

That melody is then repeated by the clarinet (04:27), going this time from the large-scale to the personal, as if reversing the order of camera shots. Things calm down even more, and the piano enters at 04:41 to begin the development section. It is unique among the development sections I know in that not a single one of the themes of the main allegro appears in it; it’s fully based on the material of the introduction.

At first there’s a multi-voiced dialogue between piano, woodwinds and strings, playing the melody in stretto (Italian for ‘narrow’, ‘tight’ –> a compositional device in which each voice enters before the previous one has finished playing its line). Our melody then disappears, there’s a transition with a gap widening between upper and lower voices, it gets quieter and quieter, and then 05:18 arrives, a magical, fairy-tale like place. Mysterious harmonies, quiet arpeggios from the piano, shimmering tremolos in the strings—and through that texture comes the ominous sound of muted horns and later the distant metallic sheen of muted trumpets (05:25). A chilling, imaginative sound image.

The brass instruments disappear, leaving the piano to descend from the heights in cold, crystalline notes. Down to a murmur it all sinks, slows down—and then the mists clear and we find ourselves at the approach to the reprise. Prokofiev takes the quick buildup transition at 00:46 and puts it on musical steroids. At first (05:56), we only have a chime-like pulse, played by the orchestra; two bars later the celli add their own quirkier rhythm, and then the piano enters with a single-voice line, playing the exercise-like passages from the original section. Instead of going up towards the end, though (like it did at 00:51), the line goes down; it’s just the first iteration of five, and there’s still a huge way to go before the climax.

The second iteration (06:08) adds the pianist’s left hand, and halfway through also chimes in the clarinets and bassoons. The third iteration (06:15) is more of the same, with the piano line going an octave higher and the general sound increasing. The fourth iteration (06:21) adds the timpani to the rhythm section, and passes the scale-like passages to the violins with the piano now playing a different passage in counterpoint. It’s fascinating to play the two together slowly—most of the combinations are sweet consonances, as if in a textbook exercise; but strewn among these are short strings of cheeky dissonances, for a bit of good fun. Finally, the fifth iteration (06:27) adds in the brass and the rest of the woodwind instruments, everybody is playing horrendously loud, the pianists are hammering their passage with alternating hands, there’s a final crescendo (exhilaration for everyone!), and —

The main theme returns (06:35). It’s often played a little faster than at the beginning, simply because everybody is so full of adrenaline from the preceding section. Here, according to the classical sonata form, Prokofiev is supposed to repeat all the themes of the exposition in order, and bring the first movement to a close, possibly after a fiery coda. But Prokofiev’s originality and ingenuity extend not just to harmony and rhythm;

to put it in his words: I very much respect the old forms, but, without doubt, believing in my own sense of form, often allow myself to depart from them.* (From his diary, the entry of March 17th, 1913; translation mine.)

The reprise, if one thinks of it, is in some ways the least exciting part of the traditional sonata form. The exposition introduces all the themes (i.e. we hear new music), the development contrasts them and explores various harmonies and keys (new music again), whereas the reprise, while admittedly giving us a welcome sense of homecoming, is expected to simply repeat the themes of the exposition (no new music!). Different composers dealt with it differently, with shortened or somewhat modified recaps being seen as an acceptable alternative already in Beethoven’s time. But it’s only in the late 19th and early 20th century that there emerged a different path through the sonata movement, one which regarded the reprise as a continuation of the development, and thus united the entire movement into one line.1

This is definitely the case with our reprise. After the first page, which is very well-behaved, the music grinds to a screeching halt (06:55, compare with 01:12 in the exposition), and we’re introduced to a colony of mice (06:59). The mice (performed by the piccolo, flute, oboe, high string pizzicatos and, of course, the piano) are, perhaps surprisingly, a variation, or an evolution of the pyrotechnical section from 03:22. The piano, playing the same kind of material, just much higher up, provides the scuttling; the rest of the instruments help provide the squeaks and add to the general mice-y atmosphere.

Several mice sections are interrupted by calmer episodes (with the woodwinds playing bits of the main allegro theme in slow motion) and heavily stomping ascents (07:22 and 07:40). The final one of these, followed by a series of glissandi on the piano, leads into a repeat of the grotesque gavotte section (08:10). But if in the exposition its nastiness had some elegance and even a little bit of charm, well, this is not the case here. This is the nightmare version, a kind of a danse macabre, monstrous and heavy and very, very malicious. A variation follows at 08:29, with fast, biting, passage-work in the piano and with the violins replacing the castanets in the rhythm section.

Everything descends into the depths, where three trombones await like hulking dragons, repeating the first three notes of the gavotte (08:42 and 08:50; in this particular recording the dragons are rather polite, they can be really unpleasant and ugly elsewhere). There’s a general slowing- and calming down and just as things seem to stop fully (the mood, as you probably sensed, is somewhat grim by that point), Prokofiev launches the coda (08:59) which is a repeat of the huge buildup we heard just before the reprise, and which is again cheerful and exhilarating (begone, monsters and dragons and gloom!2). There are fewer iterations the before—everybody is impatient by this point—and after a final crescendo, rising to a precipice, everybody plays a very loud, very decisive and very final note, merrily bringing the movement to a close.

To be continued.


(1). The neat thing is that the recapitulation (or reprise) in these instances—good examples would be the first movements of Rachmaninov’s 2nd and 3rd concertos, or that of Prokofiev’s own 2nd concerto, if one counts the huge cadenza as a kind of development-cum-reprise—would still use the melodies and motifs that appeared in the exposition, only developing them in fresh, new ways. The movement thus gets the best of both worlds: the continuity of a single line and lack of ‘boring’ repetition on one side; the pleasant feeling of recognition derived from using ‘old’ melodic material on the other. (return to text)

(2). It’s fascinating to compare the ease with which Prokofiev is able to dispense with the negative and dark in this concerto, to the much more ambiguous codas of his later works, for example the War Sonatas (piano sonatas Nos. 6-8, written between 1939 and 1944). Those, too, often end in triumph, but it’s a merry-less one, which often leaves the listener uncertain as to who triumphed over what, and whether that triumph was a good thing. (return to text)

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