The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Op. 10

About the Work

Sergei Prokofiev Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
© Richard Freed

Prokofiev was a first-rate pianist, and wrote all the fourth of his five piano concertos for himself. The first two were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and he introduced them in 1912 and 1913, respectively in the famous series of summer concerts at Pavlovsk, the resort near the city, where Johann Strauss and his brother Josef had conducted nearly a half-century earlier. The premiere of No. 1 took place there on August 7, 1912, and in 1914 Prokofiev elected to play this work for his graduation performance, feeling that the larger Second "would have sounded too outlandish within the conservatory walls." Evidently the First was outlandish enough: Alexander Glazunov, who as the institution's director had encouraged and praised the young Prokofiev, is said to have stalked out of the hall during the performance. Prokofiev was awarded a first prize upon his graduation, but it was presented to him as pianist rather than composer, and over Glazunov's open opposition.

There is little or nothing in this brief, lively work to explain so extreme a protest on Glazunov's part. The music is exuberant and even audacious in its youthful drive, but without the grinding dissonances that were setting conservative musicians' teeth on edge in the early years of the twentieth century, and it is certainly rich in melodic content. The Concerto is not merely short but truly concise, giving the impression that every unnecessary note had been eliminated in order to ensure optimum concentration on the part of both the performer and the audience.

Prokofiev gave a much later and actually somewhat longer piece for cello and orchestra the title Concertino; he might have called the present work a Konzertst?ck, for, like the works so titled by such composers as Weber and Schumann, it is in a single movement but with sections that more or less correspond to the separate ones of the conventional three-movement concerto, with the opening theme recurring as a sort of ritornello to launch each of the succeeding sections. One might optionally regard the work as a large-scale scherzo in which the middle section functions as trio. In any event, the two fast and brilliant outer sections, built on the same material, frame an Andante assai in which it is not at all unrealistic to hear intimations of the expressive lyricism so conspicuous in the works Prokofiev was to compose in the 1930s and ?40s, following his voluntary repatriation after nearly two decades in the West.

The one concerto Prokofiev did not compose for himself, by the way, No. 4, was one of several works commissioned from eminent composers between the two World Wars by Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in combat in the first one. Wittgenstein performed the works composed for him by Ravel, Strauss, Britten and others but in thanking Prokofiev for the Fourth Concerto, in 1931, he wrote that he did "not understand a single note of it," and he never played it. That work waited 25 years for its premiere, which took place in Berlin three years after Prokofiev's death.