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Hyperion Records

CDA67029 - Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 1, 4 & 5
CDA67029
Recording details: January 1998
Walthamstow Assembly Halls, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Erik Smith
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: September 1998
Total duration: 66 minutes 29 seconds

'Dazzlingly virtuosic accounts of the youthful D flat, the left hand and the brilliant G major. Outstanding accompaniments … put these performances in the class of the celebrated Ashkenazy/Previn set.' (The Sunday Times)

'A perfect follow-on from Concertos 2 & 3 by the same team, and another feather in Hyperion's cap' (Hi-Fi News)

Piano Concertos Nos 1, 4 & 5
Allegro brioso  [3'25]
Meno mosso  [3'15]
Andante assai  [4'36]
Vivace  [4'33]
Andante  [11'39]
Moderato  [8'17]
Vivace  [1'42]
Allegro con brio  [5'16]
Toccata  [2'01]
Larghetto  [7'14]
Vivo  [5'38]

With this disc Demidenko completes his cycle of the Prokofiev Concertos with the London Philharmonic and Alexander Lazarev.

The First Concerto launched the youthful composer's career—he wrote it for his graduation concert (his playing of it won him first prize) and its youthful high spirits and virtuosity make it an instant crowd-pleaser. The Fourth and Fifth Concertos are less well known though with the Fifth it is hard to see why. The Fourth was written for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein who didn't like it (he didn't like Ravel's left-hand Concerto either!) and refused to perform it; hence it is only recently that the work has been taken up.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In February 1904, a few months before his thirteenth birthday, Serge Prokofiev travelled with his mother to St Petersburg from the family home near Moscow in search of suitable schooling. From the age of five or six he had written music, and if it was clear that his inherent musical gifts should be developed (for his compositions had been praised by no less than Serge Taneyev) Prokofiev’s parents had not yet finally decided upon a thorough musical education for their son. Although the family was based in Moscow, his mother (a gifted pianist herself) preferred St Petersburg where her sisters lived. Whilst in St Petersburg, Prokofiev attended an interview with Alexander Glazunov who taught at the Conservatoire. Some days later, Glazunov recommended that the boy become a pupil and, as general subjects were taught alongside the specialization in music, Prokofiev’s parents agreed that their son should join the Conservatoire.

At the entrance examination (which he passed) he met Rimsky-Korsakov for the first time. Prokofiev’s professional career can be said to have begun from that moment. During his early time at the Conservatoire, Prokofiev crossed swords with Rimsky-Korsakov, who described him as ‘gifted but immature’, and although Prokofiev did not value his professor’s teaching methods he admired his music. Not all of his studies, therefore, were to the young musician’s liking, but it was clear that at two subjects – piano and composition – he would excel. Rimsky-Korsakov was to die in June 1908 at the age of sixty-four and, six months later, at the age of sixteen, Prokofiev made his first public appearance as a pianist in a recital of modern music at which he played seven of his own early compositions. During that same winter he heard his music played by an orchestra for the first time. This was a symphony in G major, the slow movement of which he revised and incorporated into his Fourth Piano Sonata in 1917. The sixth of Prokofiev’s early piano sonatas was soon revised, becoming the official First Sonata, his mature Opus 1. Several other piano pieces, some revised, soon followed.

The First Sonata is an interesting work, not least for its single-movement structure which may owe something in this regard to Scriabin’s contemporary Fifth Sonata. However, if Prokofiev was not aware of that febrile single-movement masterpiece at the time, the teacher who most influenced him was Nikolai Tcherepnin, with whom he (unsuccessfully) studied conducting. Tcherepnin’s knowledge of modern scores added fresh experience to the young composer. If Prokofiev’s personality is discernible in his earliest works, there is no doubt that Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Rachmaninov were early influences. The ternary structure of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto of 1882/3 was no doubt taken as the broad model for Prokofiev’s own First Piano Concerto, Op 10. In his memoirs Prokofiev virtually admitted as much.

Piano Concerto No 1 in D flat major Op 10
The First Concerto, in D flat major, was written in l911/2. Despite the ‘influences’ we have noted, which place the composition in its historical perspective, it is a brilliantly individual work which proclaimed a new voice in Russian music. The Concerto’s single-movement structure is easy to follow, and Prokofiev’s individual use of tonality (familiar from later compositions) is already in evidence. Prokofiev’s music is essentially additive – first one idea, then another, his skill best shown in his ability to fuse these elements coherently. In this, Prokofiev was a great master whose music throughout his career was founded upon a secure tonal basis, however individually he applied it. In the First Piano Concerto this is shown by a tonal side-step of a semitone, allied to keys a third apart – the latter a Romantic legacy. Such a harmonic pattern also informs the Fourth and Fifth Concertos.

In the First Concerto, the vigorous opening fortissimo theme in piano octaves and full orchestra – occurring three times in the work – is always anchored to D flat. A brilliant toccata for the soloist, with light orchestral accompaniment follows, the tonality having slipped to C major. This is succeeded by a lugubrious third theme in E minor from the lower orchestra alone (at first) which gradually gathers pace as it falls to A minor. Another slip, to A flat, and we are momentarily in the dominant of D flat, which returns with a sturdy reprise of the opening theme. The central slow section of the work, Andante assai, now unfolds in an appealing mixture of B major and its related G sharp (A flat) minor, through a beautiful theme on muted first violins and solo clarinet. This is variedly repeated twice until, after a climax, the music subsides onto A flat. The finale of the Concerto opens by continuing the development of material from the first part, but – and here Prokofiev’s harmonic genius is at its most subtle – the keys are now heard in reverse order, so that the semitonal falls now rise, encapsulating the growing excitement of the music as it reaches for, and achieves, the home tonality of D flat in a blaze of extended power from soloist and full orchestra.

The first public performance was at Sokolniki Park, Moscow, on 7 August 1912, with Konstantin Sarajev conducting and Prokofiev as soloist. The Concerto’s dedicatee, Nicholas Tcherepnin, had conducted a student performance the previous May.

By the time of the American premiere of the First Concerto (given by Prokofiev in December 1918 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock) much had happened to change the young composer’s life – as, indeed, that of all Europeans. The Great War had accelerated the unrest in Russia, leading directly to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. At this trying time, Prokofiev left Russia by way of Japan and Hawaii and arrived in New York in September 1918. Many Russian musicians, young and old, had also travelled to the New World or to Europe in the wake of the Revolution. In his overseas travels, Prokofiev met up with musicians he had known in Russia, but it was in Chicago that his initial impact in the USA was most marked. In December 1921 the city saw the first performances of Prokofiev’s new Third Piano Concerto and a new opera, The Love of Three Oranges. In mainland Europe it was in Paris, where Serge Koussevitsky had settled after the Revolution, that Prokofiev’s reputation was similarly made, with Koussevitsky conducting the premieres of the First Violin Concerto, the revised Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony, alongside other works.

Piano Concerto No 4 in B flat major Op 53
Prokofiev’s Fourth Concerto, in B flat major, is one of several remarkable piano concertos by twentieth-century composers written for the soloist’s left hand alone. We owe this extraordinary repertoire to the courage of one determined Viennese musician, Paul Wittgenstein (the brother of the philosopher), who had been a pupil of Leschetizky. Whilst on active service at the Russian front during World War I Wittgenstein had lost his right arm. Taken prisoner by the Russians, his condition caused him to be repatriated in 1916. Back in Austria he developed his left-hand technique to a very high standard and commissioned a concerto for left hand alone from the blind composer Josef Labor. The success of that work led to three groups of similar commissions from more eminent composers. The first group, commissioned in the early 1920s, included Korngold, Richard Strauss and Franz Schmidt (Strauss and Schmidt each wrote two concertos for Wittgenstein). The second group, commissioned in 1930, included Ravel and Prokofiev, both of whose concertos were completed in 1931. The last group, from 1940 (by which time Wittgenstein had settled in the United States) included the British composers Benjamin Britten and Norman Demuth.

Wittgenstein premiered each of these works except Prokofiev’s Fourth, the score of which he returned to the composer with the comment, ‘Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note and I shall not play it’. He also said it was ‘aggressively modern’ and the work remained unheard and unpublished during Prokofiev’s lifetime. The composer later said he intended to made a two-hand version, but never did. In 1956, looking through various music-publishers’ catalogues, the German pianist Siegfried Rapp came across a reference to this unperformed Prokofiev concerto. Rapp was very interested, for during World War II he too had lost his right arm – like Wittgenstein – on the Russian front, and was looking for any piano music for the left hand. Rapp contacted Prokofiev’s widow and received from her the score by return. He gave the premiere in Berlin in September 1956, but the concerto failed to make an immediate impact and has remained something of a Cinderella in Prokofiev’s concerto canon. It is only in recent years that its qualities have begun to be appreciated – qualities which were overlooked by the misunderstandings they caused.

The solo part is of extreme difficulty, but not of the massive kind that distinguishes, say, Ravel’s left-hand Concerto; here, uniquely up to that time, Prokofiev is concerned primarily with single-line writing, with wide leaps made more awkward through his ‘wrong note’ thematicism (as it was called – a term mnemonically useful but which falsely implies wilfulness from the composer). Prokofiev rose splendidly to Wittgenstein’s challenge, conceiving the solo part in terms of a transcendental technique for a single hand, and not trying to make it seem as though the pianist has (or had) two. In this it has much in common with Britten’s later Diversions, composed on almost exactly the same lines. Because of the consequent reduction in the soloist’s power, Prokofiev scored the work for a reduced orchestra: double woodwind, two horns, one trumpet, one trombone, bass drum (no timpani or percussion) and strings.

A second point concerns the concerto’s structure. His previous concerto was the revised version of the Second Piano Concerto of 1924, which is in four movements. It is a little-appreciated aspect of left-hand concertos that they rarely fall into the conventional three-movement form; it appears that the demands of ‘single-hand’ writing bring forward different structural solutions.

Prokofiev’s solution was original and brilliant, for in his Fourth Concerto it is the first movement which permeates the entire score in ways which are not readily grasped. The work has two large central slower movements, flanked by two extraordinary opening and closing ones. The opening Vivace is a brilliant moto perpetuo, commanded by the soloist throughout. In essence it is a toccata, but with only one hand involved it is ‘a swift-running movement built mainly on finger technique’ (as Prokofiev himself described it). Here the orchestra plays a very subsidiary role, similar to the second movement of the composer’s Second Concerto. Indeed, the main thematic material passes by so quickly that its quicksilver character and light orchestration make it almost impossible to grasp fully at once. It is a modified sonata-rondo, a structure in which the basic B flat tonality is refracted against adjacent A flat and C regions.

After this breathless activity the slow movement comes as a great contrast. Marked Andante and in 6/8 this fine movement opens with an expressive paragraph on the strings, with gentle woodwind echoes, and the delayed entry of the soloist has a lyrical theme in octaves (a new texture in the work) which, as the movement progresses as a set of richly integrated variations, expands into more florid, fuller, keyboard writing. The tonality here centres upon A flat and, although fluctuating between other keys, A flat remains the Andante’s basic tonality – beautifully demonstrated at the very end as the piano rises to its highest region.

In the first movement B flat was surrounded by A flat and C – each a whole tone either side; as the second movement was in A flat, so the third is in C, and begins Moderato with a dramatic orchestral gesture almost squashed by a rogue D flat. The soloist’s first theme is one of Prokofiev’s most haunting inspirations. This remarkable movement, one of the most original in Prokofiev’s concertos, is both a continuation of his unique variation technique (as in the preceding movement – he himself described it as ‘a sort of sonata allegro’, demonstrating his own uncertainty) and a coalition of related tempi, imparting a built-in accelerando from a sombre slow opening to a fast C major ending.

It might be thought that the Fourth Concerto could end at this point – but it would be in the wrong key. As we noted earlier, Prokofiev remained loyal to tonal tradition, so, having established in the first movement the pervasive influence of B flat (albeit viewed from many angles), the Concerto could not end in C major. Additionally, allied to the A flat of the second movement, the juxtaposition of these tonalities implies a return to the opening B flat. In his utterly unique finale Prokofiev brilliantly resolves this.

The finale is an abbreviated replay of the main material of the first movement: here, the dynamics rarely rise to mezzo forte and are almost always piano; the pace is swift, and the entire movement (lasting less than two minutes) is akin to a daydream-like reminiscence of the opening movement, as if to show that B flat, with its attendant themes, has been here all along, and can be glimpsed more distantly as the movement recedes from our perception.

Piano Concerto No 5 in G major Op 55
In 1911 Prokofiev had been considering ideas for three separate piano concertos. Twenty years later he found himself preoccupied with ideas for two more. The Fifth (and last) of Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos was written, like the first three, for himself to play, and he gave the first performance, in Berlin, on 31 October 1932 with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

A clue to the unique structure of the Fifth Concerto may be in Prokofiev’s remark that at first, ‘having accumulated a good number of vigorous themes’, he contemplated calling it ‘Music for Piano and Orchestra’. Eventually it became Concerto No 5, but the unusual structure remains. It is ostensibly in five movements but is better perceived as being in three parts, and it is a fascinating task to compare the influence which the experimentations of the Fourth Concerto had upon the Fifth, particularly in the wide leaps of the keyboard writing in fast movements, the development of material from earlier movements, and in the approach to tonality.

The Fifth Concerto is said to be in G major – which it is, up to a point. In fact, however, because of this key’s extraordinary relationship in this work to its ostensible subdominant, C major, it should more properly be thought of as being ‘a concerto in the key of the dominant of C’. This rather long-winded description may go some way to explain Prokofiev’s originality and experimentation in the fundamentals of this work – which are also inherent in the material itself.

The first movement possesses an incredibly rich melodic vein, full of distinctive ideas which could only be by this composer. The piano writing throughout is brilliantly varied and thoroughly idiomatic, with a subsidiary theme that could have been written around the time of his ‘Classical’ Symphony – the whole movement, diamond-sharp in orchestration, adheres to a simple ternary form. The second movement, beginning as a slow toyshop march in C major (in which key it ‘virtually’ ends) takes a leaf from the third movement of the Fourth Concerto in juxtaposition of tempi within a broad ternary structure. The third movement, Toccata, continues the Fourth Concerto’s influence in using material from the opening movement for further development and bringing its pervasive G major to a stronger ending.

The Larghetto is the only slow movement in the work. In B flat (and emphatically written for the soloist’s two hands – occasionally almost three!), this key has a fascinating semitonal relationship with A minor and B major before the soloist brings us back to B flat major, echoing the tonal basis of the First Concerto of twenty years before.

However, the Fifth Concerto’s finale begins in B flat minor, and the semitonal relationships of A minor and B minor effect a brilliant return at last – after many thematic virtuosic adventures – to G major. B minor is both the leading key of C (the dominant of which is G) and also the major mediant of G. A final tumult of related keys, with the music fit to burst with excitement, brings this dazzling concerto to a breathless end.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1998


Other albums in this series
'Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3' (CDA66858)
Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
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