Composed: 1913; 1923
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, and tambourine), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 11, 1953, with soloist Jorge Bolet, Erich Leinsdorf conducting
The ongoing publication of Sergei Prokofiev’s diaries is a monumental achievement. Translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips, the first volume alone comes in at an arm-bending 800 pages. And this only covers the years 1907-1914, the composer’s late teens and early 20s! It is difficult to believe that Prokofiev had the time to generate so many pages of recollections while challenging his fellow students as the wunderkind of Russian music. Perhaps this energetic avalanche of youthful words is forewarning for the energetic avalanche of a concerto he would premiere before his 23rd birthday.
The composition he called his Second Piano Concerto is first mentioned in November of 1912. From that date until the first performance in late summer 1913, references to the Concerto occur regularly in his journals. About the premiere he wrote:
“Following the violent concluding chord there was silence in the hall for a few moments. Then boos and catcalls were answered with loud applause, thumping of sticks and calls for ‘encore.’ I came out twice to acknowledge the reception, hearing cries of approval and boos coming from the hall. I was pleased that the Concerto provoked such strong feelings in the audience.”
Confoundingly, the piece we hear in this concert is not the piece that raised the roof in 1913. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 the manuscript was lost. By 1924, Prokofiev had re-created the Concerto from memory, but the changes, he later suggested, practically made for a new concerto altogether.
As we know it today, the Concerto opens with a lyrical theme played by the piano against muted strings. This leads to the unprecedented and gigantic cadenza for solo piano, displacing the orchestra for much of the rest of the movement. The second movement, brief and possibly sinister, leads into the darkened martial footfalls of the Intermezzo. The Finale is a frantic torrent, as exhilarating for the audience as it is punishing for the soloist.
We have no way of knowing precisely what the original Concerto sounded like, but a diary entry from the period of its composition gives us a clue to Prokofiev’s thinking at the time.
“When you are writing a concerto, if you conceive of it as a combination of piano and orchestra, the pianistic side of the solo part will always suffer….
“What would be the ideal way to compose a concerto? It occurred to me today that it would certainly be interesting for a pianist to be presented with a concerto that had its origin in a technically challenging sonata and subsequently been transformed into a concerto. The solo part would be bound to be interesting pianistically, while the sonata itself would benefit by the reinforcement and embellishment of a skillfully added orchestral texture.”
He may have returned to this thought when he came to translate the music of a young man to the language of a more experienced composer.
Grant Hiroshima is the Executive Director of a private foundation and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.