Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No. 3

 Prokofiev wrote a set of variations for piano in 1913, and over the years continued to expand on it until it took form as his 3rd piano concerto in 1921. The work is now one of Prokofiev’s most popular, but that wasn’t the case after its premiere. It took a few years for the concerto to develop in popularity until it became one of the mainstays of piano concerto literature in general, and one of the best concertos of the 20th century.

I. Andante - Allegro - The work begins with a soft rendition of a theme, first by a solo clarinet that is joined by another. The orchestra takes up the theme, but briskly whisks it away as it builds in speed and volume. The soloist enters with a different theme, and this builds to a climax, after which the soloist plays a short cadenza that fades away as another theme is played by the winds accompanied by the strings and the clicking of castanets.
The piano and orchestra comment on some of the material heard until the orchestra takes up the opening clarinet theme. The soloist plays an expansive variant of the theme. After tremolo strings softly play in accompaniment to the piano, the piano descends in a delicate figure that ends with the orchestra beginning to chug out the opening of the fat-paced material heard in the beginning, and orchestra and soloist rapidly bring the themes back from the exposition.  The whirlwind of piano and orchestra returns one more time and brings the movement to a close with a bang.

II.  Tema con variazioni -  The theme is played by flute and clarinet, and is followed by 5 variations:
1.      The piano broadens the theme and is joined by the orchestra that repeats the theme, as the soloist plays high in the treble.
2.      A trumpet plays the theme as soloist and orchestra play a rapid accompaniment.
3.      The theme is barely recognizable as it is torn asunder by the soloist as the orchestra tried to get things back on track, but not for long.
4.      The theme has transformed to an ethereal dream as the orchestra and soloist slowly unwind the mystery.
5.   The music quickens as orchestra and soloist pound out parts of the theme, as it builds to a climax that quickly dissolves into a more recognizable appearance of the theme. A coda helps the music wind down further, until a low E minor chord ends the movement.

III.  Allegro ma non troppo - Bassoons and pizzicato strings play the A minor first theme while the soloist interrupts periodically with a theme of its own. These two themes are developed until the tempo and dynamics slacken with the second theme in C-sharp minor. The piano interrupts this theme as well with another of its own before the C-sharp minor theme returns with the mood taking a late Romantic turn as it is developed. Shifting harmonies change the theme as the soloist plays rippling scales. A climax is reached, and the quiet return of the first theme begins.
The soloist’s part becomes a virtuosic tour deforce as the pace is quicked, along with very difficult maneuvers such as double-note glissandos for each hand. Prokofiev’s piano technique must have beene impressive, for he premiered the work in Chicago in 1921 as soloist.  The piano and orchestra continue to battle each other until the final C major chord. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No. 1 In D-flat Major

Sergei Prokofiev was one of the original Russian 'bad boys' of music.  His early compositions were fraught with dissonance and did not sit well with the musical establishment. But there was something more to his music than just noise and cacophony. He used dissonance as a great chef uses seasonings. He could be bold and innovative, and he could also be very subtle and subdued. He had a great gift of melody, and was highly imaginative.

He was born in 1892 and heard his mother play the works of Beethoven and Chopin in his early childhood. After studying privately with Reinhold Gliere, he was introduced to Alexander Glazunov who was so impressed by some of Prokofiev's compositions that he persuaded his mother to enroll him at the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 12.

He wrote in most genres of music; opera, symphony, ballet, but he is most well -known for his compositions for piano. He was a virtuoso pianist himself and debuted his first 3 piano concertos as soloist with orchestra.  The 1st piano concerto was written in 1911-1912, and was received almost unanimous negativity.  It is in one movement, but has three distinct sections as a conventional concerto. But Prokofiev suggested that it could be looked at as written in a one-movement sonata form:

I. Allegro brioso - The first section is similar to the exposition section of a sonata movement. Strings and brass by way of introduction herald the beginning of the movement with three chords of D-flat major. The soloist appears and the broad main theme is played with full orchestra. The orchestra then plays the theme without the soloist. The key signature changes and the soloist alone for a time in music that is typical of his style that was already formed at 19 years old. Driving rhythm, large leaps up the and down the keyboard and a tendency to treat the piano as a percussive instrument. This leads to another spiky theme for the piano with accompaniment. The theme continues as the key changes back to D-flat major, and switches back and forth in key until the music slows and the key changes to E minor.  

To the melancholy theme played in the orchestra, the piano adds a more subdued accompaniment in single notes for both hands that range from high to low on the keyboard, to the melancholy theme played in the orchestra. Piano glissandos that are usually used for more dramatic effect by composers appear in the background. The piano then plays a solo section that leads to the tempo being gradually increased as instruments make an entrance along the way to increase the tension and drive, until the opening broad theme reappears in the orchestra. After a climax is reached, the music slowly winds down and ends with lone notes by the cellos. After a very brief pause, the next section begins.

II. Andante assai - This part is considered an insertion or episode between exposition and development. The key changes to G-sharp minor as muted and divided strings softly begin the section. Short motifs are played by the clarinet and horn until the soloist enters. The piano is much more subdued as Prokofiev gives the instruction of dolcissimo, but it isn’t quite tamed completely. Large spread chords punctuate the delicate 16th note accompaniment in a piano solo.  The music grows more impassioned and gets louder as the piano large chords against the strings. Slowly orchestra and piano grow quiet until the flutes, clarinets, horns and strings fade out to leave only the piano to end the section.

III. Allegro scherzando - This section comprises the development and recapitulation of a sonata form movement.  The key changes, perhaps to C major at least by having no sharps or flats in the signature, but pizzicato strings, horns and tubas play a strange chord that consists of A-flat in the bass, G-flat - C - E - G natural. The piano trips upward in a chromatic scale with added grace notes, as the music becomes hard driving again.  A secondary theme from the first section appears in the trumpets and horns. The piano then takes this theme and develops it solo. The melancholy theme from the first section then returns briefly. The music grows in texture and volume until the main theme from the first section enters and serves the function of a recapitulation. The music ends as it began, with a chord of D-flat major.