Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev (27.04.1891 - 05.03.1953)

Piano Concerto No. 3

Sergei Prokofiev wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major in 1921, utilizing sketches first started in 1913.

Creation and Overview

Prokofiev began work on the concerto as early as 1913 when he wrote a theme for variations which he then set aside. Although he revisited the sketches in 1916-17, he did not fully devote himself to the project until 1921 when he was spending the summer in Brittany. Prokofiev himself played the solo part at the premiere on 16 December 1921 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock. The work did not gain immediate popularity and had to wait until 1922 to be confirmed in the 20th century canon, after Serge Koussevitzky conducted a lavishly praised performance in Paris.

Movements

The concerto consists of three movements of roughly equal length which last just under 30 minutes in total.

  1. Andante - Allegro
  2. Tema con variazioni
  3. Allegro, ma non troppo

Instrumentation

  • Piano solo
  • Orchestra:

2 Flutes 1 Piccolo 2 Oboes 2 Clarinets 2 Bassoons 4 Horns 2 Trumpets 3 Trombones Timpani Percussion (Bass drum, Castanets, Tambourine, Cymbals) Strings

Analysis

Of the five piano concertos written by Prokofiev, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26, has garnered the greatest popularity and critical acclaim. The concerto radiates a crisp vitality that testifies to Prokofiev's inventive prowess in punctuating lyrical passages with witty dissonances, while maintaining a balanced partnership between the soloist and orchestra. Unlike the examples of piano concertos set by many of Prokofiev's Romantic forebears, the orchestra rises above subsidiary accompaniment to play a very active part in this work.

1. Andante - Allegro

The first movement (C-major) opens with an Andante clarinet solo, a long, lyrical melody that the whole orchestra eventually picks up and expands; the allegro entry of the solo piano unexpectedly breaks the lyrical mood in an exuberant, harmonically-fluid burst of brilliance and rhythm. Piano and orchestra continue in dialogue, through an expansive andante return to the first theme, then finishing again in a thrilling, virtuosic allegro.

2. Tema con variazioni

The middle movement (E-minor) is a theme and five variations and is a dazzling example of Prokofiev expressing his slightly sarcastic wit in musical terms. The central idea is stated by the orchestra in a hesitant, piquant gavotte. The first variation is a broad, slow restatement by the piano, beginning with a long trill followed by a glissando-like run up the keyboard, in florid anticipation of the solo clarinet run at the beginning of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue written later in 1924. The second variation is presented by the orchestra at a galloping pace, with the piano providing excitement with long runs up and down the keyboard. The third variation is a heavily-syncopated deconstruction of the main theme with a lumbering jazzy backbeat. The fourth variation, possibly the most famous, is a haunting, wandering meditation of the main theme, with free dialogue between the piano and orchestra; a recurring motif of cold, ethereal falling thirds from the piano adds to the faintly other-worldly mood set by this section. The fifth variation is another allegro romp for soloist and orchestra, starting in a sunny major key but modulating into transitional waters as the main theme is fragmented and thrown into double-time pieces, then building and subsiding into the Coda. The orchestra plays the main theme in its original form, at original speed (one-half that of the preceding variation), with the piano providing double-time obbligato accompaniment. A short andante ending hinting at an E-major ending gives the piano the last word with a low-octave E-minor chord.

3. Allegro, ma non troppo

The third movement (C-major), which Prokofiev himself called an "argument" between soloist and orchestra, begins with an A-minor statement of the main theme in bassoons and pizzicato strings, interrupted by the piano's assertive entrance with a conflicting theme. Interplay between the piano and orchestra builds up steam, with a brief quickening of tempo (foreshadowing the lengthy, brilliant Coda) before arriving at a slow, lyrical secondary theme in woodwinds. The piano offers a rather sarcastic reply, and the slow theme develops, through another Rachmaninoff-esque restatement and another ethereal exploration (the soloist running up and down the keyboard softly over gently-dissonant muted woodwinds), into a united climax with piano and strings in beautiful unison, then fading into the Coda. This is the most unabashedly virtuosic section of the Concerto, with an allegro restatement of the main theme, again in bassoons, but in E-minor. The piano reframes it initially in D-major, then slides into a bitonal obbligato against a G-major underpinning in strings; then the coda explodes into a musical battle between soloist and orchestra, with dazzling piano ornamentation over the orchestra (including famously difficult clustered-note arpeggios, often approximated by pianists with keyboard glissandos using the knuckles), eventually establishing the ending key of C-major and finishing in a flourish with a fortissimo unison C.

Recordings

Prokofiev himself made the first recording of the Piano Concerto No.3 in 1932 with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Piero Coppola. The recording was made at Abbey Road Studios in London and is the only recording that exists of Prokofiev performing one of his own piano concertos.

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