Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 Program Notes
The work that sealed the young Prokofiev’s reputation was the D-flat Piano Concerto, completed in 1911 and premiered in Moscow, with the composer as soloist, on July 25, 1912. Tremendous publicity, particularly regarding Prokofiev’s prowess at the piano, preceded the concert. The huge hall was, according to one report, filled with “3000 listeners,” according to Prokofiev himself “with up to 6000” (hm!). The critics were, predictably, split, one review referring to the Concerto, simply, as “primitive cacophony,” another suggesting that the audience chip in to “buy the poor fellow a straitjacket,” while a third praised the composer for a work of “wit, imagination and brilliance.” Everyone thought the pianist was terrific.
Some months later Prokofiev, as part of his graduation exercises at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, entered a concerto performance competition whose winner would receive a grand piano and the school’s top prize, the Rubinstein Award. Instead of the Beethoven, Schumann, or Tchaikovsky selected by the other contestants, Prokofiev – in a typical act of youthful chutzpah (the Russian word escapes me) – elected to play his own First Concerto.
The judges were at each other the moment the performance was over, with only one name figuring in the squabbling: Sergei Prokofiev. One juror suggested that the young rascal be ejected from the hall; another, hardly enamored of the music itself, felt that Prokofiev’s playing deserved “a dozen grand pianos.” The composer Alexander Glazunov, director of the Conservatory, found the music “filled with harmful tendencies” but voted with the majority in awarding the performance prize to Prokofiev.
What was it about the Op. 10 Piano Concerto that so excited and/or outraged its early audiences? First, as suggested, no one could remain unmoved by its performer’s (i.e., the composer’s) powerful, flying fingers, since it is likely that no previous concerto had required so much in terms of strength and sheer speed. And what surely thrilled some and offended others in the music itself was its almost constant toccata-like motion – short, hard, “shallow” notes and a blunt dynamic scheme, as distinct from the “lyricism” of piano music in general from Chopin onward.
Many among those first audiences must have been tricked by the Concerto’s grand opening chords, for piano and orchestra in full, simultaneous cry, into thinking that something majestically Romantic, à la Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, was in the offing. But their hopes would be dashed, their sensibilities perhaps offended by the piano’s scampering, motoric solo entry, very lightly accompanied, and a second theme contrasting only by way of initially being slower before taking off again, with percussive insistence.
The slow movement follows without pause (the Concerto is in one continuous movement, but clearly divided into the usual fast-slow-fast sequence) and here one might find evidence of a lyrical, Scriabin-like mysticism (the ghost not quite exorcised), before that “majestic,” first-movement introduction returns to signal the intrusion of the pungent, raucous finale, with the glockenspiel coming as close to being clobbered as possible (its usual innocent tinkling is replaced by something more threatening here), to complement the piano’s hammered chords and arpeggios in an exhilarating dash to the finish.