The opening of Prokofiev's First Concerto is pure Tchaikovsky. The D flat chords of the latter's First Piano Concerto - one of the most famous opening solo gestures in the repertoire - are here transcribed for strings and brass. The piano itself then joins the orchestra in a surging lyrical theme, the kind of theme (and especially the kind of texture) that Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov likes to reserve for the culmination of a finale; and the kind of theme which seems destined, as this one does, to come to a full stop. Where is Prokofiev in all this, and why does he start with a conclusion?
Prokofiev is there in a subtle way in the raised fourth degrees of the scale which help to give the theme its characteristic piquancy. But he is there even more after the theme's full stop, when the piano charges off in an unprepared C major with a manic version of a conservatory pianist's limbering-up exercise; he is there in the following section when the soloist treats the home key as an arena for wit and fireworks; he is there most of all when the fourth section introduces an E minor funeral march, made transparent in the manner of Prokofiev's comic fairy-tale opera, The Love for Three Oranges. Above all, the chameleon-like adaptation of the piano to its surroundings is pure Prokofiev. The soloist is equally happy as Byronic hero, facile prodigy, masquerader and acrobat.
As for structure, this single-movement concerto seems so far to have made a point of ignoring the symphonic cogency of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. What could be more episodic than these four virtually self-contained, tenuously related sections? Indeed Prokofiev's whole manner of composition - randomly jotting down ideas in a notebook ready for use when the occasion presented - suggests indifference to integrated, large-scale design; and more than one of his ideas for this Concerto originated in the little "Ditties" for piano he had been producing throughout his teens.
And yet, everything from the solo passage after the E minor funeral march to the end of the work is structurally masterful. An accelerating transitional passage, picking up threads from the "limbering-up" section, disgorges into a restatement of the opening theme, now reinforced by tintinnabulating piano octaves. A Rachmaninovian slow section is paired with a devilish little developmental scherzo, after which everything, including the cadenza, is combination and recombination of themes. The final statement of the main theme, the last and most extravagantly scored of what Prokofiev called his three "whales", at last brings the all-embracing peroration it so prematurely promised.
A pianist's concerto then, and certanily an audience's one, but under the surface this is a composer's concerto too. It was first performed on 7 August 1912 (Prokofiev noted that "The orchestra was faking it at times"), and its most notorious outing was when Prokofiev successfully competed for the Anton Rubinstein prize (for pianists) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory on 18 May 1914. In order to fulfill jury requirements he had had to arrange for publication of his work, and when he came on to the platform he proudly noted "scores spread out on 20 knees". After the judging a disgruntled Glazunov had to announce Prokofiev's victory through bared teeth. The young composer-pianist enjoyed the notoriety it brought him (some critics complained of it's "footballism") and the work became virtually a meal ticket for him in his burgeoning career.
Program note by David Fanning
Yevgeny Kissin, piano;
Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado
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