Saturday, March 16, 2024

Serge Prokofiev, the Pianist with Fingers of Steel

Prokofiev by Matisse (1921)

Aside from Peter and the Wolf, the "Classical Symphony," and the March from The Love of Three Oranges, the most frequently performed work by Serge Prokofiev would be his 3rd Piano Concerto, composed in 1921.

This weekend, since Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony are performing it at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg with "powerhouse pianist" Terrence Wilson, I thought I would re-blog my post from the once-upon-a-Harrisburg-Symphony-Blog for a 2015 concert. 

This is not Wilson's first performance with the Harrisburg Symphony. Some years ago (I haven't been able to find exactly when but I remember Ellen Hughes doing a "Desert Island Disc" interview with him at WITF before 2007) when he played (as I recall) the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1. Here is a performance from Terrence Wilson's 2022 Faculty Recital at Bard College, playing Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7, speaking of "fingers of steel"...

The program opens with Joan Tower's "Chamber Dance," premiered in 2006, "a unique work that showcases the orchestra through solos and duets." The New York Times music critic, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, described it as "slinky, fast-flowing and infused with a strong sense of rhythm," adding, "it's an infectious piece of orchestral writing."

The concerts begin at 7:30 on Saturday and at 3pm on Sunday, with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

Here is a 1977 performance of the 3rd Piano Concerto by Martha Argerich with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra which has some great close-ups of the pianist's hands, for those of you who can't get enough of that from your seat on the left-side of the hall. You'll see why this is not a concerto for the faint-of-heart.

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When Sergei Prokofiev was a toddler, he watched his mother play the piano and decided he wanted to do that, too. Around the time he was 5, he brought her a piece of paper and said “Here is a Chopin Mazurka I have written for you. Play it for me.” Unable to read his notation, she started to play an actual Chopin Mazurka, but the boy insisted she play the one he composed, not that one. So, she began teaching the boy how to notate music so other people could play it.

That's how his music lessons began.

His first composition was an “Indian Galop” in F Major except there was no B-flat in it as there would normally be. He was reluctant to “tackle the black keys” of the piano, he explained; perhaps his hands couldn't reach them, yet. Or maybe he was just being different, already preferring sounds that weren't what people expected.

Soon, he could play pages of Mozart and the easier Beethoven sonatas and loved improvising for the family and their guests. If his audience began to talk to each other instead of listening, young Sergei would stop abruptly and leave the room.

Prokofiev & "The Giant"
At 9, he composed an opera (for piano) called “The Giant” (see photo, left) and then two more, one called “On the Desert Island” and the other “The Feast in the Plague Year” which consisted mostly of an overture which he then, when the family traveled from their home in Eastern Ukraine to visit Moscow, played for Taneyev, one of the leading composers in Moscow who had studied with Tchaikovsky.

In 1902, a young student of Taneyev's replaced the first composition teacher Prokofiev had – one who was too tedious with his rules – but Reinhold Gliere, during his summer visits to the family's home, found ways to inspire the 11-year-old boy who soon began composing a symphony. Finding Gliere's four-square rules and bland modulations distasteful, he also began composing piano pieces with more dissonant harmonies and unusual meters.

Eventually, his mother decided to take him to St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, where he was favorably viewed by Alexander Glazunov, one of the leading composers in Russia, then, and invited to audition for the conservatory. Following a young man “with a small beard who had with him only a single romance [song] in his baggage,” Prokofiev, now 13, carried in two music cases bulging with four operas, a symphony, two sonatas and a large number of piano pieces.” The head of the school, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was impressed.

Fast forward to 1921 when Prokofiev is now 30, having written, among other things, his wildly popular “Classical Symphony” and garnered a reputation as a Bad Boy of Russian Music. He was acclaimed as a pianist but found himself hampered by the possibilities of making a living in the new post-revolution Soviet Union. Rachmaninoff had become a Scandinavian refugee in 1917 before settling in America.

Technically, you could say he began work on what would become his 3rd Piano Concerto in 1913, shortly after finishing the 2nd, sketching a Theme with Variations that eventually became the new concerto's middle movement. Material from a string quartet from 1917 also found its way into this slowly gestating piece.

Remember that Prokofiev in 1912 was a musical rebel, performing his first two piano concertos which were dismissed with comments like “To hell with this futuristic music! The cats on the roof make better music!” He performed his own highly chromatic and dissonant piano pieces and gave the first local performances of Arnold Schoenberg's new 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11 from 1909.

But in 1917, he composed a symphony of Haydnesque clarity, even if that in itself – so unexpected – was the idea of “rebelling.” He himself called it the “Classical Symphony,” “as if Haydn were alive and composing today.” It was mostly written during those uncertain times between the February Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Tsar and the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government. During this same summer, Prokofiev began his 1st Violin Concerto.

Another work he started was a “white note” quartet in which all the musical material could be played on the “white keys” of the piano (though why one would then write it for string quartet seems odd). But he put it aside, also, mostly out of boredom with his present situation during this post-Revolution period.

Believing that Russia had no use for music at the time, immersed in the life-or-death struggle of its Civil War, Prokofiev applied for permission to leave his homeland for America. The Arts and Education Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky told him, "You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way.”

And with that, Prokofiev boarded a train across Siberia, then boarded a ship across the Pacific to arrive in San Francisco in August, 1918.

Prokofiev, NYC 1918
A debut concert in New York City seemed promising and he was offered a commission for a new opera to be premiered in Chicago. This became The Love of Three Oranges but it was already in rehearsal when the premiere was postponed following the death of the company's director. Spending all this time working on the opera meant he was not performing and therefore not earning money, so he found himself in financial difficulties. His playing was constantly being compared negatively to Rachmaninoff's more lyrical style and so, uncomfortable with life in America, Prokofiev decided to leave for Paris in 1920 where there was a large population of Russian ex-patriots.

There, he met up once more with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev who commissioned a new ballet from him – called Chout or “The Buffoon.” During a holiday on the coast of Brittany, Prokofiev returned to his earlier sketches for that Theme & Variations and that “white note” quartet and came up with his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, completed in July of 1921.

Now, C Major is basically a “white note” key – and even though the opening melody in the clarinet is all “white notes,” it's not clearly C Major. And once the piano takes off, whatever might seem like C Major (or any other key) has so many “non-white notes” harmonizing it, was it really C Major?

As he was working on the concerto, Prokofiev received a visit from the Russian poet, Konstantin Balmont, whose poetry he had set frequently in the past. After hearing the composer play through his new concerto, Balmont recorded his impressions in verse, which ended,

Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom,
In you, the orchestra yearned for resonant summer
And the invincible Scythian strikes the tambourine of the sun.

Prokofiev returned to America to give the concerto its world premiere in Chicago with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony on December 16th, 1921. Then, two weeks later, he conducted the belated premiere – finally – of The Love of Three Oranges.

Both the Piano Concerto and the opera were fairly well received but when the production was taken to New York City the following February, critical reaction to both concerto and opera proved huge disappointments to the composer. The opera was mostly met with comments like “Russian jazz with Bolshevik trimmings" and "The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it.” At a cost of $130,000 for the production, one critic complained that that was about $43,000 per orange. It did not receive another production in America until the New York City Opera mounted it in 1949.

Koussevitsky conducted the Piano Concerto in Paris in 1922, at which time it was well received and soon went on to become a staple of the repertoire, as far as modern concertos were concerned. Prokofiev, the “man with steel fingers,” performed it often and it was the only one of his concertos he recorded – with Piero Coppola in London in 1932. While it might not be the most precise performance between soloist and conductor or even the most well-balanced recording available, but still, it is the composer playing the piano: you can hear the third movement, here.

One further anecdote about Prokofiev from this time-period as we sometimes wonder what it might've been like to be in a room with two of the most famous living composers of the day.

When he was in Paris in 1922, Prokofiev (see photo, left, with Diaghilev and Stravinsky) was again meeting with the impresario Serge Diaghilev about a revival of his ballet Chout when Diaghilev wanted to hear The Love of Three Oranges. So Prokofiev proceeded to play it for him. However, Igor Stravinsky, who was also present, refused to listen to any more after the first act.

When he accused Prokofiev of "wasting time composing operas," Prokofiev shot back that Stravinsky "was in no position to lay down a general artistic direction, since he [was] himself not immune to error." As Prokofiev wrote in his diary, Stravinsky "became incandescent with rage" and "we almost came to blows and were separated only with difficulty. ...[O]ur relations became strained and for several years Stravinsky's attitude toward me was critical."

Eventually, Prokofiev and Stravinsky patched up their friendship, though Prokofiev was often critical of Stravinsky's neoclassical "stylization of Bach." On the other hand, Stravinsky publicly described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his day – after himself, of course.

So I found it amusing, after doing some on-line searching, to discover Gabriel Prokofiev, the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, was having his new violin concerto premiered at the London Proms during the summer of 2014, conducted by Marius Stravinsky, a “cousin five times removed” of Igor Stravinsky.

- Dick Strawser

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