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Piano Concerto for the left hand 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 He also said it was ‘aggressively modern’ and the work remained unheard and unpublished during Prokofiev’s lifetime.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.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1998

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67029 track 5
Recording date
3 January 1998
Recording venue
Walthamstow Assembly Halls, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Erik Smith
Recording engineer
Ken Blair
Hyperion usage
  1. Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 1, 4 & 5 (CDA67029)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: September 1998
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