PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 (Antoni Wit/ Beata Jankowska/ Kun Woo Paik/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550566)
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D Flat Major, Op. 10
Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major, Op. 26
Piano Concerto No.4 in B Flat Major, Op. 53
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the sonof a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents werefostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand atcomposition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composerGli?¿re. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enterthe St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianistand as a composer unti1 1914, owing more to the influence of seniorfellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation ofteachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer,arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, nowdirector of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The ScythianSuite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemptionfrom military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolutionwas given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him thescores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned byDyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia withofficial permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. Hisstay in the United States of America was at first successful. He appeared as asolo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the ChicagoOpera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris,where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale ofthe Buffoon, a ballet successfully mounted in 1921. He spent much of the nextsixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his musicwas still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country,taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on musicthat did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government,aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera A Lady Macbeth of theMtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev wasto be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicitcondemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev's operaWar and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus neverbenefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkableFiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death,with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last ofhis seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixthpiano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire,in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, someworks overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is oftenastringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melodyand, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic giftfor orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
After the death of his father in July 1910 Prokofiev began to turn hisattention to the commercial possibilities in the publication of his music,without immediate success. During the summer he also began to sketch a pianoconcerto, which he completed early in 1912. The work was welcomed by VladimirDerzhanovsky for his series of concerts at Sokolniki Park in Moscow andscheduled for subsequent performance at Pavlovsk, outside St. Petersburg inAugust, with Prokofiev making his first appearance as a soloist with anorchestra. The conductor in Moscow was Konstantin Saradzhev, who secured abetter degree of proficiency from the orchestra than Alexander Aslanov atPavlovsk. The concerto had a mixed reception, wild enthusiasm from some andmarked disapproval from others, to the composer's gratification. The concerto,after all, marked a significant change in Russian music, from the romanticismof Rachmaninov and Skryabin to a new world of clear and sometimes harshcontours. Prokofiev chose to play the work at his graduation from theConservatory in 1914, in competition for the Anton Rubinstein Prize, acontroversial choice when other students offered Liszt and Saint-Sa?½ns. Thejury was divided, but Prokofiev was eventually awarded the prize, with thesupport of his teacher Tcherepnin and former pupils of his piano teacherEsipova. Glazunov voted against their choice and, as director of theConservatory, presented the award with the greatest reluctance.
The Piano Concerto No.1 in D flatmajor, Opus 10, dedicated to Nikolay Tcherepnin, is scored for afull orchestra, its percussion section augmented unusually by tubular bells,and with transposing instruments written, in what became Prokofiev's normalpractice, as they sound. After resonant D flat chords, the soloist introduces,with the oboes and later the flutes, thematic material that is to recur,repeated forcefully three times in the opening section of the work, describedcuriously by Prokofiev as "the three whales that hold the concertotogether". The second theme is announced by the soloist, material derivedfrom an earlier composition, its two rhythmic elements of dotted notes andtriplets later combined and contrasted. The opening theme re-appears, leadingto an Andante episode, introduced by muted strings and followed by an Allegroscherzando in which the soloist enters after plucked string chords, soon movingforward to an episode based on the rhythmic second theme, which also opens thepiano cadenza. The initial theme returns to bring the concerto to an energeticand powerful conclusion.
In 1920 Prokofiev returned from America to Europe and was eventuallyjoined by his mother in Paris. There was renewed contact with Dyagilev and talknow of staging The Buffoon
(Chout), commissioned and completed in 1915 after the rejection of the earliercommissioned ballet, Ala and Lolly, which became the Scythian Suite, to thedistress of Glazunov at the Conservatory. There was a further concert tour inAmerica and a return to France for the staging of The Buffoon, followed by asummer in Brittany working on a new piano concerto, for which he relied to someextent on earlier material, written before he left Russia. In France he renewedhis earlier friendship with the symbolist poet Konstantin Bal'mont, who hadtaken refuge abroad after 1918. Prokofiev was the soloist at the first performanceof the new concerto, which took place in Chicago on 16th December 1921, twoweeks before the opening of his opera Love for Three Oranges in the same city.
The Piano Concerto in C major, Opus26, opens with a Russian theme, a clarinet solo, written in 1916-17,immediately followed by an energetic Allegro, its impetus continued with theentry of the solo piano, a third theme being introduced by the soloist, to formthe basis of a movement that ends with an ascending sequence first written downin 1911. The second movement is in the form of a theme and variations, themelody itself sketched in 1913 and at first presented primarily by thewoodwind, before the five variations, two of which had been written in 1916-17.
The first variation is given to the soloist, the second accompanied by a stormypiano part, the