Morpheus on… Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto

Prokofiev composed his First Piano Concerto when he was barely twenty – it’s a nice piece.

His Second, finished in 1913, is brilliant. Impossibly difficult to play, it features a “solo” that is MANIC. In fact, knowing some conductors would lose their place in the score – he utilised a ploy which is familiar to Big Band jazz musicians today. A distinctive figure designed to WAKE UP the orchestra and tell them, “This is where you leap back IN!”

But then, in 1914, came World War One. Its effect was BRUTAL on Russia – and coupled with the Revolution, caused death, destruction and misery on a monumental scale.

Had the still-young Sergei been a poet, he would have expressed his feelings in prose. But he was a COMPOSER – and used (some would say ABused) that medium instead. As the conflict raged around him, Prokofiev put all of the horror he felt at the atrocity that was ripping his country to pieces – down on music sheets.

Eventually, the hostilities ran their course and the composer left Russia to seek his fortune. His First Piano Concerto was an immediate success – although his Second (which was pretty avant-garde for its time) took a while to gain public acceptance.

But after it had, his publishers started pressing him for the Third he had promised them. This gave Sergei a problem.

It is said that a good novel tells you as much about the WRITER as it does their story’s characters. And this was certainly true of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Sergei had put all of the hurt and angst he had felt – while witnessing the obscenity unfolding about him – into the piece.

He had never expected it to be PERFORMED. Aside from the fact that it was even more difficult to play than the Second – it stripped his soul BARE. He knew anyone listening to it who had any perception at all would immediately feel the emotions he had infused it with.

It is a monstrous piece – there is not a single happy note in it – and so he told his publisher he had LOST it.

However, this did not satisfy the publisher one bit. A composer does not LOSE a piano concerto – that would be like a boat-builder mislaying a BOAT. The publisher pressed Prokofiev. “You WROTE it – can you not remember how it GOES?”

Eventually, as the passage of time mellowed the memory of the fury that had generated the piece, Sergei produced the work. He even began to PLAY it in concert (at that time, he was one of the few people capable of DOING so).

Thus this terrible musical outpouring came into the public domain.

It has been described as the total abuse of a piano. But given the fact that music in its highest form is the expression of emotion, this is not quite fair. Certainly, music is normally used to express joy, sadness, melancholy – even humour – but there is no rule that says it cannot also express anger, frustration and OUTRAGE.

Which his Third Piano Concerto DOES, in spades. WAR – it’s all there.

In fact, any player who can HANDLE the piece (and few truly can) must beware of being sucked IN – and DOWN – by it.

Which is why you will rarely witness anyone REALLY GOING for it.

Oh sure, these days the musical conservatories are churning out HUNDREDS of clever buggers who can PLAY the work – hit all of the piece’s notes in the right order.

Some players can even maintain the SPEED required – although few can manage the speed AND STRENGTH needed.

And those few rarely allow themselves to ABSORB and PERFORM it. To do so requires the soloist – and the accompanying ORCHESTRA – to submit to emotions they would rather keep HIDDEN.

A rare exception was Michel Beroff and the Gewand Orchestra of Leipzig, in 1974. They TOTALLY went for it – and gave a good reading of the Second. Last I heard, the two recordings were still available on CD – however, they might have been “restored” (thus wringing all of the “live” feel out).

But if you want to SEE what a proper reading of this piece does to a player, you can watch Cecile Ousset having a go – I put the last two minutes of her 1991 performance on YouTube on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOfUUlT0nXs  and the FULL work on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMxJW1poEqk

This is an extraordinary performance. Women rarely attempt the piece, given the physical STRENGTH and STAMINA required (look, I don’t want to sound sexist: but women drive off forward tees and only have to play three sets to win Wimbers – okay?)

The full three-movement work lasts around half an hour. And Cecile having now retired, you will rarely see anyone REALLY go for it. But if you do – and it reduces you to tears – don’t say I didn’t WARN you. Alright?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Uh, Argerich? Yuja Wang? Two women who play the Third *brilliantly*. I think your assertion about women & the Third is off-base and unfounded.

  2. Posted by Vincent on September 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Wang I’m not familiar with – but while Argerich makes a good fist of it, I hold to my opinion that the speed AND power needed to deliver the Third properly is beyond MOST women. This is NOT sexist – merely a FACT, dictated by the physical differences between men and women.

  3. Posted by Seo Ke-min on May 1, 2014 at 4:14 am

    I consider Argerich to be a man musically, her interpretation is totally masculine, more masculine some male performers. Cecile Ousset’s interpretation is different in that it has that feminine touch Cecile consistently brings to her performance. Wang Yujia, although I’ve seen her performance with Abbado I don’t know what to make of it. Technically everything is there, but interpretatively? Perhaps she’s still too young then to understand the music completely and interpret the music with more depth. Given what I’ve seen she has the potential to become another Argerich.

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