The ‘academic’ and somewhat cliched view is that Prokofiev’s second piano concerto is the greatest of his five piano concerti. Many pianists and scholars parrot this idea and infer that the second concerto is a work of greater depth and therefore has what it takes to be considered great music. (There are actually many moments of mystery, darkness and profound feeling in the third concerto.) I would argue this view comes more from what people expect from a romantic piano concerto rather than anything else. It is also a view that suits those who wish to sound clever and above the obvious answer. The second concerto must be better because the third is popular and therefore cannot be considered to be great or profound. But sometimes people cannot see the wood for the trees.
Prokofiev premiered his second piano concerto in Pavlovsk in 1913 and it was labelled as modernist, cacophonous and futuristic. After his first piano concerto, Prokofiev stated that he had wanted to strive for greatest depth in his second. The first concerto was premiered in 1912. It is a one movement work divided into the traditional fast slow fast format of a concerto. This first concerto strikes the listener as being a statement of intent. It is a work which Prokofiev regarded as his first mature composition. It seems to shout ‘Prokofiev has arrived!’. It screams precocious talent and genius. It’s individual and magnificent main theme sweeps the listener off their feet. It’s athletic dry approach to piano writing underlines Prokofiev’s original new approach to piano writing. It’s dissonances and confidence clearly challenged the conservative audiences in Russia who were used to the romantic aesthetics of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. It sounds like it has come from another planet! However, Prokofiev was influenced by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin in his early music and in the first concerto’s slow central section we have an aching and dreamily romantic theme which builds to a climax with all the gushing rhetoric of those aforementioned composers.
The first concerto lasts a brilliant 15 minutes; Prokofiev wanted to write a bigger, more ambitious and yet personal concerto with his second. Much has been made of the second concerto’s dedication to his friend Maximilian Schmidthof who committed suicide in 1913 and that this accounts for the greater depth and darkness in the score. The truth is that it’s composition had began some time before this tragic event in Prokofiev’s early life.
The original orchestration was destroyed in a fire after Prokofiev fled Russia to America (via Japan and the far east) due to the revolution of 1918. Prokofiev reconstructed the concerto from a piano score and memory in 1923, so the version we know today is different to the one which premiered in 1913. However, it remains a startling and original masterpiece in four movements. It still challenges the ears of audiences today with it’s most discordant, dark and strident sections. Alongside Rachmaninoff’s third and Bartok’s second concertos, Prokofiev’s second also has a reputation of being one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire for the soloist (though it would be hard to argue Prokofiev’s fifth concerto is any easier).
In the first movement of the second concerto Prokofiev writes what must be the greatest cadenza ever written in a piano concerto. Marked ‘colossale’ and fff, the magnificent arpeggios that scale up and down the keyboard (accompanying the second theme of the first subject group), had John Ogden remarking in the Pelican Guide to Keyboard Music that ‘(his) piano music frequently seems to dispose the hands in a new and totally original way’.
There is much original piano figuration in the second concerto. As well as the famous cadenza, one thinks of the crossing hand movements at the piano’s entry in the third movement or the octave / single note right hand left hand alternation in the first idea of the last movement. (Prokofiev uses this briefly for the first time in the cadenza towards the end of his first concerto.)
The second concerto is really an expansive romantic concerto which takes the virtuoso romantic piano technique of Liszt and Rachmaninoff to dizzying new heights with greater harmonic exploration. As a romantic concerto, I would argue that the second concerto is not actually a fully mature concerto by Prokofiev. The second concerto contains many innovative piano figurations, but the third concerto surpasses it in the originality and the ingeniousness of it’s inventions. The third also breaks more fully from the tradition of romantic piano music initiated by Chopin, Liszt and others.
It could be said that the second concerto is not as even a composition as the third. That may sound churlish considering the extraordinary achievements of the first and second movements, but Prokofiev’s third concerto is consistently brilliant at every moment. The reason for this apparent abundance of inspiration is down to the unusual (for Prokofiev) way in which the third concerto was attempted, returned to, compiled and then constructed within a ten year period. Prokofiev had been planning another large scale virtuoso vehicle for himself to perform as early as 1911. The third concerto contains the cream of the best ideas Prokofiev had over a 10 year period at a time when he was on a frenetic upwards trajectory of discovery, innovation and creation. That Prokofiev was able to construct the third concerto so successfully, with such rich content, so perfectly balanced and thought out, is remarkable and a testament to his craftmanship.
The third concerto simply has his best ideas for the piano, some of his most memorable and moving melodies and a blend of classical, romantic and modern elements brought together in a truly original and mature compositional style.
Looking ahead at Prokofiev’s fourth piano concerto written for the left hand, which sadly did not get performed in Prokofiev’s lifetime, we see a move towards the style of Romeo and Juliet. It’s ingenuity in writing for the left hand is remarkable. As with the third concerto, the fourth and fifth concertos Prokofiev makes the orchestra as busy, involved and important as the soloist; they contain some of Prokofiev’s most colourful and effective orchestration. The fourth is a great and totally different concerto, as is the fifth, whose subtleties and originality are now also being appreciated.
Prokofiev’s third concerto is his most popular, but it is not considered his greatest. But when quality, originality and memorability match up with technical perfection in form you find the greatest music. To say the beautiful melodies and atmospheres in Prokofiev’s third concerto are not as deep or meaningful as the second concerto is nonsense. They are simply different types of music.
Many pianists perform the third concerto as an empty virtuoso vehicle for themselves to show off with. As with Rachmaninoff’s third concerto, over the top fast tempi seem to be favoured. One can understand the roots of this thinking when listening to Rachmaninoff’s and Prokofiev’s own recordings – which both sound like a race to fit the music into sections to fit on a 78 record. Putting aside the authenticity of the composer’s own interpretations at that time, is there not more to be heard in these scores? Am I to rush over all the details, beauty and emotion in these scores simply because the composers raced through their own performances? Call it over-romanticising or what you like, but you would not rush a Beethoven concerto. Treat these works as great music with attention to detail and they will sound like great music.
I will explore the recordings of Prokofiev’s third concerto in much greater detail later.
In summary, I believe Prokofiev’s third concerto is his perfect piano concerto. It is his masterpiece of inspiration in the form.