2017 Blossom Music Festival
August 19 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Opus 10
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
At a Glance
Prokofiev composed his First Piano Concerto in 1911 while a student in St. Petersburg. The first performance was given in Moscow on August 7, 1912, with Konstantin Saradzhev conducting and the composer as the soloist. The first performance in the United States took place in Chicago on December 6, 1918, with the composer as soloist and Frederick Stock conducting.
This concerto runs about 15 minutes in performance. Prokofiev scored it for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, and strings, plus the solo piano.
The Cleveland Orchestra first presented Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at concerts during the 1929-30 concert season, conducted by Rudolph Ringwall and with the composer as soloist. The Orchestra last performed this work in 2010 with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist.
The Cleveland Orchestra recorded Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto in 1966, under George Szell’s direction and with Gary Graffman as soloist.
About the Music
Sergei Prokofiev enrolled as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905 at the age of fourteen. It was one of the major conservatories of the world, and he received a solid musical education in his ten years there, alongside many other young Russian musicians of that generation. But Prokofiev quickly acquired a reputation for being an unruly and audacious student, willing to shock his teachers with wildly adventurous pieces that deliberately contravened conventional rules of musical decorum. Music poured from his pen, especially piano pieces, since he was as much studying to be a pianist as a composer, and his technique was already formidable.
By 1911, Prokofiev was getting to be better known, and in 1912, he broke through as a front-line Russian composer with a number of public premieres, including the First Piano Concerto, first performed in Moscow in that year, and widely reported by the press. Although it was far from being his most advanced work, it appalled many critics and even some of his teachers. His supporters rose noisily in his support.
The cultural atmosphere in most European capitals in the years before the outbreak of war was heated and intense, with a raucous avant-garde challenging the gloriously decadent furnace of late Romanticism. In Russia, the division could be represented by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff on the conservative side, with Stravinsky and Prokofiev on the other. Although insults and condemnation were generously delivered on both sides, we are today in the fortunate position of being able to admire and enjoy the genius that streamed through the veins of all of these four composers and many of their less celebrated contemporaries.
“Such primitive cacophony hardly deserves to be called music,” wrote one review of Prokofiev’s new concerto; another called it “musical mud.” He was not deterred by this kind of response; indeed he was already used to it. He had a band of friends who believed in him — and audiences proved anxious to hear the work many times again during the following years. In any case, his productivity was abundant, and he continued to produce music of widely varied character. It was not long before Prokofiev was to write the graceful “Classical” Symphony.
The First Piano Concerto is a dazzling showcase for the soloist. It is cast as a single continuous movement with distinct sections representing slow movement and scherzo. The forthright tune that breaks out nobly at the start is heard again in the middle and at the end of the work. Prokofiev displays the prodigality of a young composer not short of ideas sharply contrasted one with another. After the return of the big tune, there is a slow episode giving prominence to solo instruments from the orchestra, and this is followed by the scherzando section. A solo cadenza recalls earlier themes, and the hectic pace is maintained to the point where the third and final hearing of the main theme heralds the concerto’s close.
Prokofiev went on to write five more concertos, the sixth and last being unfinished at his death in 1953. Only the Third Concerto has proved to be as popular as the First. —Hugh Macdonald © 2017