The Young Prokofiev (1915)While Sergei Prokofiev’s third piano concerto may be his most well-known, I want to reach still further back.  I essentially see his first two explorations with the form as better gateways to his music.  They are doubly worth hearing together because they present us with two entirely individual expressions of a young composer in the burgeoning stages of creativity.  The years are 1912-1913, and Prokofiev is in his early twenties: The first two concertos represent the attempts of a student-come-composer to find a place in his art for the comic and the tragic.

The first concerto in D-flat major, Op. 10, is a short single-movement piece.  It was written by Prokofiev at the end of his stint at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was considered the resident “enfant terrible” and mischief-maker.  While at school, Prokofiev sought to develop his own musical voice, unimpeded by the disapproval of the conservatory’s more conservative faculty members.  The piece is rarely longer in performance than a quarter of an hour – making it perhaps the most accessible of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos.  A full concerto in miniature, it consists of a slow and distinctively Russian middle mini-movement, bookended by sections that are full of rhythmic fun and playful detachment.  There is comic lightness in Prokofiev’s step here.  In the dance of the piano part, is the young composer poking fun at his less adventurous teachers? 

With the second concerto in G minor, Op. 16, we find ourselves on bleak, wintry terrain.  And as with all great tragedy, there is nothing superficial, no skating on the surface.

Sorrow found Prokofiev when he was young: first with the death of his father, and shortly thereafter with the suicide of his dear friend and conservatory classmate, Maximilian (to whom the concerto is dedicated).  The second concerto begins with the quiet rumblings of an unaccompanied piano.  And I see significance in the soliloquy: For while the orchestra plays a major part in adding to the tragic texture of the music, I think that it’s really with the piano that Prokofiev gives voice to the memory of a friend.    

This would explain the monster of a piano part, a cadenza that takes up nearly half of the first movement.  It’s an ode to dejection, a dark coming to terms with the death of a loved one – marked by a melancholic mood more commonly associated with Rachmaninov than with Prokofiev.  The build is defiant, and the climax – with the return of the orchestra – is one of the darkest moments in all of Prokofiev.  The cadenza is essential listening. 

On his website, Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky speaks of Prokofiev as “a symbol of light, of rhythm and of life.”  Perhaps it is that the comic and the tragic are part of the same rhythm, the same dance.  Perhaps it is that these two works of the young Prokofiev show that comedy and tragedy are less forces of youth than they are functions of art.

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Recommended Recordings:

  • Prokofiev: The Five Piano Concertos – Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Andre Previn / London SO (Decca, 1997 CD release; 1970s recording)
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 1, 3 & 4 – Kun Wai Pak, with Antoni With / Polish National Radio SO (Naxos 8.550566; 1992)
  • Prokofiev: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 – Evgeny Kissin, with Vladimir Ashkenazy / London SO (EMI, 2009)


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