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Hyperion Records

CDA66858 - Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
Recording details: December 1995
Blackheath Concert Halls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Erik Smith
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: October 1996
Total duration: 64 minutes 10 seconds


'A commanding artist whose dazzling technique and virtuosity are never hidden from view' (Gramophone)

'Demidenko is breathtaking in his virtuosity. The orchestra is with him all the way and so is the Hyperion production team who have, as usual, created the perfect sonic setting' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Magnificent!' (Hi-Fi News)

'What is most striking about Demidenko's performance is not so much his effortless command of the cascading torrents of notes as his ability to hold in perspective the plethora of detail while conveying a marvellous sense of lyrical sweep' (Soundscapes, Australia)

Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
Scherzo: Vivace  [2'38]

The music for Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto is, albeit in a different guise, that of the Scythian Suite which prompted the aging Glazunov to walk out of concert in fear for his hearing. In years since the work has won a rather more cherished place as the most popular of the composer's five highly contrasting works in the genre. The work is in four movements and develops upon the models of Rachmaninov.

The Third Concerto is the result of much longer genesis, initial sketches having been made before the composition of Concerto No 1. The work shows a similarly Russian character alongside more daring use of percussive piano writing.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
On 4 april 1910 the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Eugène Plotnikov, gave the Russian première of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist. Written for Rachmaninov’s first American tour, he had first performed the work in November with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch, following this with a second performance in January with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler. In the Moscow audience was the eighteen-year-old Serge Prokofiev, then a pupil at the St Petersburg Conservatoire.

The Third, Rachmaninov’s largest concerto, is where his masterly structural originality can be heard at its greatest in this genre. Nowhere is this more awesomely shown than in the vast first movement where Rachmaninov writes a double development, an integral part of which is a lengthy solo cadenza. Long cadenzas were not unknown in concertos before this, but cadenzas forming an important part of the development were indeed new: the concept was not itself an innovation, but in Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto the feature was raised to an exceptional degree.

By 1909 Rachmaninov—then, like Scriabin, not yet forty—was established as a world-famous composer, a great pianist and an outstanding conductor. That year his symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead had been written, performed and published in miniature score. Among those who acquired a copy of this score was Prokofiev; it made a deep impression on him, as had Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, which he had heard at its first Russian performance in February 1909 (the work had received its première in New York the previous December). So much was Prokofiev inspired by these orchestral works that within a few months he had written two symphonic poems, Dreams and Autumnal Sketch; as he admitted, the former was inspired by Scriabin, the latter by Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead.

Prokofiev was a brilliant pupil. He had been writing music since he was a child and, at eighteen, already possessed a formidable piano technique. By the time of Rachmaninov’s return from America, Prokofiev had composed his first piano sonata, three sets of piano pieces, and an orchestral Sinfonietta, as well as the two symphonic poems. His music was already that of a distinctive composer. In those days there were some who sought to set Scriabin against Rachmaninov—twin leaders of Russian music of their generation—as modernist against traditionalist, forgetting both Rachmaninov’s originality and Scriabin’s debt to tradition. One of the leaders of this faction was the young conductor Serge Koussevitsky whose ‘modernist’ programmes favoured Scriabin. Such manufactured rivalry was not shared by the composers themselves—after Scriabin’s death in 1915 Rachmaninov played Scriabin’s Concerto with Koussevitsky conducting. Prokofiev was briefly to side with the ‘Scriabinists’, but he emulated—and surpassed—Rachmaninov by composing his first two piano concertos whilst still a student.

One of Prokofiev’s teachers had been Rimsky-Korsakov, who died in 1908 and whose sole piano concerto—a single-movement work lasting about fifteen minutes—was cited by Prokofiev as being an example of one of two categories of piano concerto wherein ‘the solo part is well coordinated with the orchestra but less interesting for the performer’. Whether his own First Piano Concerto was modelled consciously upon Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Prokofiev himself regarded the work as falling into the same category.

In August 1912 Prokofiev, making his initial appearance with orchestra, gave the first performance of his First Concerto—a single-movement work of the same length as Rimsky-Korsakov’s. Having now written a concerto ‘in the first category’, Prokofiev soon planned a second concerto ‘in the second, [wherein] the solo part is excellent, but the orchestra serves mainly as an accompaniment’. This was a very different proposition, and he looked elsewhere for a model. In 1910 Rachmaninov’s structural originality in the first movement of his Third Concerto must have created a deep impact upon Prokofiev, for the younger composer closely planned the structure of the first movement of his Second Concerto upon the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Third.

Although, as was to become his lifelong habit, the material for Prokofiev’s Second Concerto had been collected over a period of time, the work is vastly different in almost every regard from his First. The Second, written two years after its predecessor, is more than twice as long and is not in one movement, but four. The solo part is no less brilliant, but is technically—and musically—more difficult.

As noted earlier, Prokofiev had been composing since childhood, and he himself admitted that some of the ideas of the Concerto—perhaps the very first subject, heard on the piano over rocking triplets—came from the middle of the first decade of the century. But no matter what the provenance of this material or whether the catalyst was hearing Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, there is no doubt but that, while the fate of this Second Concerto of Prokofiev mirrored in many ways the fate of Rachmaninov’s Third (both were sidelined for decades), the resultant work is one of Prokofiev’s greatest scores, a brilliant concerto which has come into its own only in recent years.

The first movement is an astonishing achievement. Beginning with a quiet idea, setting the G minor tonality on clarinets and strings, the solo piano announces one of the composer’s most memorable ideas, an arching theme over rocking triplets. This is, in fact, the first of two themes which make up the first subject; the second is a rising scalic idea, also heard first on the piano. This material is repeated, although not slavishly, in a develop­mental counter-exposition to usher in the second subject, a faster, more balletic idea marked ‘con eleganza’—again given to the soloist. What is so utterly new is that the key of this second subject is the supertonic, A minor—a scheme which can surely not have been attempted before by any composer in a sonata-like movement. The juxtaposition of these adjacent tonalities sets up underlying tensions: the second subject is also treated to a counter exposition and leads, where we may expect a development proper to begin, to the vast cadenza. In this secondary large development Prokofiev prepares for the recapitulation in masterly fashion: the tonal tension is further stretched by combining first and second subjects in virtuoso keyboard counterpoint with coruscating additional passage-work so that, when the very opening quiet idea is nobly intoned against this by the brass to announce the re-entry of the orchestra in G minor, it is done against a timpani pedal on A! This tremendous moment is made more remarkable as A is the dominant of D—itself the dominant of G minor, in which key the movement ends with a quiet reference to the opening idea.

Prokofiev’s use of tonality was individual. It may have sprung from Scriabin, in that Prokofiev used it in the manner of synaesthesia, finding relationships between colour and sound. In this Prokofiev was not alone, certainly in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, but his was not a neurasthenic, sensual art: his music could be vigorous and resolute, as in the concluding movements of the Second Concerto.

Now follows a brilliantly virtuosic Scherzo, marked ‘Vivace’: a brief, yet hectic, 187-bar eruption in which the soloist plays throughout in octaves without a moment’s respite (music which clearly influenced, and not for the only time in Prokofiev’s output, the young William Walton). This Scherzo may be the first appearance of such a demand on a soloist—playing a movement from first note to last, without a single rest—in the history of concerto writing, yet tonally, being in D minor, the movement reinforces the home key of the work in traditional terms. In other ways there is an almost Mahlerian intensity to this music, and even more so in the Intermezzo, which inhabits a similar world to the Nachtstücken in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony as the same time as seeming to be, in its solo writing, a descendant of Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’, and additionally, in its grotesqueries, looking towards the ferocity of Prokofiev’s own Scythian Suite of 1914/5.

The Finale is echt Prokofiev, a power-house of brilliant ideas, transfigured by a haunting tune (from his childhood?), which are combined, after another glance at Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, in virtuosic cascades to bring to a close a distinctive and magnificent concerto which could have been written by no other composer.

The concerto was first performed in Pavlovsk on 5 September 1913 with the composer as soloist. The reception was mixed, as Prokofiev recalled: ‘Half the audience hissed and the other half applauded’. These views were echoed in the press. For his graduation in 1914 Prokofiev chose to perform his own First Concerto, which he also entered for the Rubinstein Prize and which was published in time for these events.

He won the Prize and, as a reward, his mother offered him a foreign trip. In the summer of 1914 he went to London, where Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were performing. Prokofiev was introduced to Diaghilev and played him the Second Concerto at the Savoy Hotel. The impresario was taken with the score and for a time thought it might make a ballet as it stood. He wanted to use Prokofiev and suggested that, on his return to Russia, the composer should consider writing a ballet on some archaic Russian theme. The resulting ballet was Ala and Lolli and, when he had received reports of the music from two associates who had visited Prokofiev, Diaghilev urged the composer to come to Rome where his company was then touring, and also promised to arrange a concert for Prokofiev. (At that time, March 1915, Italy had not yet entered the war and was soon to renounce the triple alliance with Germany and Austria.) In the event Diaghilev liked neither the music nor the scenario and told Prokofiev that he should write a new ballet. The composer fashioned the orchestral Scythian Suite from his Ala and Lolli music. While in Rome he played his Second Concerto in the Augusteo on 7 March.

This was to be the last performance of the Second Concerto in its original guise. Three years after his Italian début Prokofiev left Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution and travelled first to America. Although he was welcomed there, and completed his opera The Love of Three Oranges, he returned to Europe in April 1920, living for a while in London before settling for some years in Paris. In the French capital he met up with other expatriates, notably Diaghilev and Koussevitsky. For the former he completed the ballet commission of five years earlier—Chout—and the latter agreed to programme his music, in particular the Scythian Suite and what is now called the ‘revised version’ of the Second Concerto, which Prokofiev gave with Koussevitsky in Paris on 8 May 1924. The revisions of this work are curious. It is sometimes said that the original score was lost, but the work had received at least two performances and for both scores and orchestral parts to have disappeared seems most unlikely, the more so in the case of Prokofiev. Indeed, early in 1996 evidence points to an original version in the Glinka Museum.

In the meantime, between 1917 and 1921, Prokofiev wrote his Third Concerto, which he performed for the first time in Chicago under Frederick Stock on 16 December 1921. Sketches for this work date back as far as 1911 and in the intervening years the composer worked at it from time to time. He included a passage from an uncompleted ‘large virtuoso concerto’—evidently not the Second—and the theme for the set of variations which make up the second movement was written down in 1913. In 1916 he wrote two variations for the second movement and added themes for the first, at the same time including a passage from a projected string quartet (a diatonic work in two movements, the whole material playable using only the white keys of the piano). The material was eventually used in the finale of the Third Concerto. Thus when Prokofiev needed a suitable work to perform with orchestra and decided to write the Third Concerto, virtually the whole of the thematic material was already assembled.

In 1911 Prokofiev had found himself wrestling with ideas for three piano concertos at the same time; almost inevitably one finds thematic inter-relationships. This is clearly shown in the opening themes of the Second and Third Concertos (virtually the same in contour). The theme of the Third Concerto is the same idea from which all later material is derived, notably the theme which opens the variations and the ‘white-keys’ theme of the finale. One can also trace this in the more chromatic elements: the second subjects of both first and third movements, and the descending phrases in the variation theme of the second movement. It is, perhaps, this thematic integration that gives the work a tight coherence, but the harmonic daring and the subtle relationships of various keys to the tonic C major add a spicy, quirky element which is endearingly timeless.

The concerto was none too well received at its première in 1921 and in 1924 Prokofiev chose to offer Koussevitsky his revised Second Concerto. Neither was published as quickly as the First had been in pre-revolutionary Russia. However, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto has for many years been the most popular of the five he eventually composed, and it is the only one to be in the customary three movements (No 4, for left hand, is in four, No 5 in five). It was also the first to be recorded (by the composer himself in 1932 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Piero Coppola). Today the Second Concerto bears the same relationship to the Third as does Rachmaninov’s Third to his Second—in each instance the larger composition may be regarded as the finer work of art, while the shorter will always be the more popular.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1996

Other albums in this series
'Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 1, 4 & 5' (CDA67029)
Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 1, 4 & 5
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