Piano Concerto No. 1, in D-flat major, Op. 10
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, orchestra bells, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 20, 1976, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting, with soloist Viktoria Postnikova
If you’re a composer and pianist with the prodigious chops of Sergei Prokofiev, you can be forgiven for showing off a little. It was a transparently flashy move for the 22-yearold, still studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, to enter a piano concerto competition in 1912... and perform one of his own. Hoping to win a grand piano and the Rubinstein Award, the gambit worked; he took the grand prize. The composer had premiered this, his first concerto, a few months earlier in Moscow, and in both situations the critical response was mixed. Some judges wanted to throw the kid out for such a brazen move, some critics thought the piece was a bunch of noise. But no one could deny the lightning fingerwork of the young man on the bench.
The Piano Concerto in D-flat was a clear showcase for the performer-composer, ignoring traditional form in favor of ratcheting up the interval-leaping, key-jetting potential. The opening bars introduce a grand, romantic theme – and a deception, because Prokofiev largely abandoned it thereafter in favor of keyboard athletics. “It’s so inventive,” says pianist Yuja Wang. “You can see how much you can do with just a third, scales, and jumps. The sheer talent and brilliance of his brain is all there — and also it’s very humorous.”
The soaring opening melody, with piano and strings playing in unison, only lasts a minute before the Concerto goes into its rapid, staccato workout. All along, the orchestra subtly supports the star, and even as the music turns dramatic and even a little sinister, the piano can’t help staying mischievously light on its feet. A dreamy, almost melancholy string passage begins the second movement (the lines between movements are especially thin here), and for a moment the piano gives into this wistful mood with hints of jazz. But the scampering returns in the third, and the orchestra responds with flirtatious fire. A serious search ensues, the piano sprinting in one direction as strings race in another, the whole thing frothing up into a glittery volcano and back into the opening theme for a bombastic finale.