Andante – Allegro
The opening melody that works in minor and major keys
How difficult is it to write a beautiful, pure and memorable melody? How difficult is it then to make that melody work in both a minor and major key? (See 1. And 2.) The answer is extremely difficult! I challenge any composer to write such a beautiful, simple tune and memorable tune that works in both major and minor keys!
The opening melody of the introduction is played by solo (then duo) clarinet, a memorable and original way to start a piano concerto. It starts in A minor, the relative minor key of C major, then the strings and woodwind repeat the theme in a romantic rich harmonisation in the tonic key of C major. The beautiful F minor / G harmony at bar 9 is sometimes carelessly missed on recordings. This is due to the violas being divided into 3. The A flat needs to be given enough tone to be heard as it is a vital and emotional note in the harmony. See how many recordings you can hear which have been careless enough in the mix to miss this A flat out!
First subject group – a fantastic build up for the entry of the soloist!
Having not wasted a single note in the beautiful melody of the introduction, the tempo quickens for the famous ascending scale build up (initally on strings) to the piano’s entry at fig.3 (in the orchestral score). This staccato ascending semiquaver scale run, and the theme with which the piano enters, can be seen as the first subject group.
Has there ever been a more exciting or impressive way for a piano soloist to be introduced in a concerto?!
As this concerto had been planned by Prokofiev for many years, specifically to be a virtuoso vehicle for him to perform, the composer made sure he gave himself the greatest possible intro!
A great riff and white notes only
The ascending scale sequence is clever in a number of ways. As each sequence is completed, it prepares for its repeat an octave higher. It perpetually pushes the music upwards. It is also written entirely on the white notes of the piano (in C major). It is a deceptively simple but ingenious idea which builds up in a crescendo of tremendous excitement.
Musician Rick Beato describes this semi-quaver build-up as “the greatest riff of all time written with only the white keys”.
Prokofiev’s thinking of composing using just the white notes goes beyond this riff. He had started to write a string quartet written entirely using white notes (i.e. a diatonic scale with no sharps or flats) in 1918. Prokofiev must have seen this as an interesting compositional challenge to his melodic genius, but eventually he abandoned the project, thinking the end result would be too monotonous. However, he took the first and second themes of the quartet’s finale to use in the finale of the third concerto and used other material later on in his opera The Fiery Angel.
The piano’s first theme – Prokofiev’s fresh and original harmonies.
What chord would you use to accompany the entry of the piano in a concerto in C major? Prokofiev avoids the mundane by giving us this arpeggiated harmony (fig. 3) – B diminished / C (similar in effect to a dominant 7th / tonic C.)
This chord keeps us immediately on our toes, making us unsettled and agitated in anticipation. A lesser composer may well have harmonised this theme with a predictable (and boring!) C major chord.
The piano enters with a 3 note motif which is a retrograde version of the first notes of the introduction’s theme. It is similar to a motif found in the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto – a work which, according to his diaries, Prokofiev enjoyed playing. (This contradicts Prokofiev’s comments stating that he liked and played Rachmaninoff’s first two piano concertos but found the third too dry.)
Prokofiev avoids predictable functional harmony.
After just two bars Prokofiev takes us in an unexpected direction. There follows two beautiful extended harmonies in the orchestra – E flat minor 2nd inversion over A flat major second inversion (fig. 2) followed by B flat minor second inversion / A flat 7/9 (fig.4) – and then a D flat to G flat ostinato in the bass with a series of ascending chords.
On the repeat of the 3 note motif Prokofiev gives the music a lift by changing the harmony to Dm7 / G major second inversion. These substitutions for traditional functional harmony create new sensations for the listener.
Two chromatic harmonies lead us to the climax of the first subject group on a kind of G major seventh and C/D chord alternation (ostinato) with more ascending chords. What beautiful and joyous chords these are! You can hear an influence of Debussy and Ravel with these chords.
The piano then cascades down with broken chords alternating between the hands. These broken chords – black notes overlapping white ones – remind us of figuration found in Ravel’s piano pieces like Jeux d’eaux or Gaspard de la Nuit. The idea of overlapping black notes over white notes on the piano is something Prokofiev returns to frequently in this concerto.
From figure 6 there is a transitional passage which takes us from the first subject material to a build-up in tension towards the second subject at figure 13. This completely contrasting second subject has a quirky and darker feel in the relative minor key of A minor.
Second subject closing section – a brilliant and original piano idea
This flippant and audacious idea stems from one brilliant, original but simple idea on the piano:
First, play a descending broken octave in the right hand on the white notes. Next, play a black note a semitone underneath with your left hand, play the right hand broken octave ascending then cross over your left hand to hit the black note a semitone above! Repeat and vary in sequences and play around with the idea!!
It is an athletic and fun idea – not to mention an innovative and ingenious one.
There is an almost Wagnerian climax to this section which includes some piquant chords in the brass from fig. 22:
Development and recapitulation section (in sonata form) combined
There is a brief, passionate outpouring of the introduction theme by the full the orchestra at fig.26 followed by (reversing the original order) the solo clarinet playing the theme – this time accompanied by strings at fig. 27.
There is a gorgeous harmonic moment where the first violins cross over to the D above the clarinet’s A two bars before 28. It is amazing how so many performances rush this clarinet solo or the moment of tenderness and stillness at this point. It is a beautiful moment and it should be savoured.
The introduction theme is then played in imitations and in stretto between the piano and orchestra in a magical and flowing development. There are many beautiful moments to savour such as the contrary motion strings a bar before fig. 30. This bar sounds amazing with a little rallentando.
The end of the section from fig.30 sounds like a fairy-tale.
The white note riff then returns in non legato semiquavers in the piano and orchestra at fig.32. This tremendous build up leads us to a repeat of the first subject theme at fig.36.
At 39 we have more fun with those white note broken octaves and criss-crossing left hand playing black notes.
From fig. 41 we have a series of ascending triads with overlapping hands that was one of the earliest conceived passages Prokofiev wrote for the concerto back in 1911.
After some glissandi in the piano with the first subject motif repeated in the orchestra, there follows at fig.47 the second subject A minor theme, returning in a discordant rendition (along with the castanets, with an even more prominent role).
At the end of the section there are ‘veloce’ scales in the piano before the coda of the white note riff at fig. 50 rounds off the first movement.
Theme with variations
Prokofiev was a master of writing variations (we think of the Quintet and Second Symphony from the 1920s which also have brilliantly inventive variations). Prokofiev gives us five sharply contrasting variations on a gavotte like theme – which is full of trademark Prokofiev slights of hand in harmony.
Prokofiev before Gershwin?
The piano enters for variation 1 with a trill and swift ascending scale, reminiscent of the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue written three years later. Pianist Barbara Nissman wrote in the Prokofiev Foundation Journal that Gershwin’s friend, the pianist Oscar Levant said in his writings that Gershwin always carried with him two cherished scores: Debussy’s Preludes and Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. I have not been able to verify this but it is a tantalizing story for someone who loves Gershwin and Prokofiev as much as I do. (Prokofiev’s third concerto and Rhapsody in Blue played such a big influence in my early musical life.)
The first variation ends elegantly with high trills in the piano. It gives way to a blistering second variation which prominently features magnificent piano figurations, ostinato patterns, pedal points and solo trumpet.
At figure 60 the pianist has to negotiate considerable acrobatic hazards with large leaps and swiftly crossing left hand notes. The variation ends with a mysterious sort of plagal cadence which is repeated at the end of variation 3 and at the end of the movement.
Variation 3 has catchy cross rhythms between piano and cellos/basses. There is a bitonal feel to this variation. Just before figure 67 we get a section of predominantly white notes in the right hand and black notes in the left hand. It seems looks forward somehow to the first movement of Stravinsky’s brilliant Sonata of 1924.
A fleeting moment of beauty
Sandwiched between the discords and strident rhythms there is a moment of Tchaikovsky-like melodic beauty and tenderness at figure 68 with a wonderful and original flash of melody. The harmonic progression is typically Prokofiev – totally instinctive, a sort of chromatic progression within E major. (See 7.)
Variation 4 – Andante Meditativo – is a slow, dreamy, atmospheric but often lonely landscape. This is the section that most feels like a traditional slow middle movement of a concerto and feels like the central point structurally and emotionally for the whole work.
The descending lines of (mostly) chromatic thirds in the piano add to the uneasy atmosphere. (They derive from the first and second bar of the theme.) Their final extended and icy descent is marked ‘freddo’ – Italian for cold.
From two bars after 70 up to 71 there is an exquisite passage of chromatic harmonies in the oboe and first violins that needs to be milked for all its beauty.
There is a light and fleeting section of thawing from the cold with tremolo strings and demisemiquavers in the piano at bar 112.
The last two harmonies of variation 4 deep in the bass of the piano are difficult for the ear to decipher; they are chord substitutions for the more obvious oscillating notes in the right hand.
The piano launches into the allegro giusto of variation 5. This is initially balletic and acrobatic until a heavier variation emerges at 77. This builds to a climax with incessant octaves in the piano part. At 81 the ballet returns with arpeggios cascading up and down the piano between the two hands and chugging Tchaikovsky-like staccato woodwind chords. The bass line descends chromatically as the rest of the orchestra surge upwards ecstatically to another climax where the clouds break and the theme returns at 83 – this time with delicate staccato chords in the piano.
Return of the theme
The classical delicacy returns and the theme fades out at 87. Two bars later the piano cries out a dissonant echo of the ‘plagal cadence’ before low strings end the movement in a solemn mood. Their stillness is broken by the bass drum and piano in very low register; reminding us of the serious undertone present thorughout much of the movement.
Notes by Steve Law Copyright 2021.