Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum), strings, and solo piano
In his brilliant book Defining Russia Musically, Richard Taruskin writes about Prokofiev: “While he liked playing the role of an enfant terrible, he made sure that an academician could always detect his underlying allegiance to the traditional values and skills on which grades were based. This remained true throughout his life; it is utterly characteristic of Prokofiev that beneath the clangorous surface there always lay a simple harmonic design and a stereotyped formal pattern straight out of the textbook.” This judgment is fully in line with a lovely comment by one of Prokofiev’s sons (was is Oleg? was it Sviatoslav?) I once encountered somewhere but am now unable to locate: “First my father writes the music, and then he prokofievizes it.”
Both his obedience to the traditional values “on which grades were based” and his disposition to fracture them may well have its origin in Liadov’s theory class at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In his Autobiography Prokofiev relates: “Besides studying counterpoint and the fugue, Liadov made us write short pieces. But he insisted on the same rigid adherence to the rules of voice-leading in the pieces as in the contrapuntal exercises. Anyone who dared to depart from the conventional path was bound to incur his wrath. Thrusting his hand into his pockets and swaying back and forth on his soft heelless prunella boots, he would say, ’I cannot understand why you bother to study with me. Go to Richard Strauss, go to Debussy.’ He might as well have said, ’Go to the devil!’”
In the composer’s own analysis the ”classical line” of his development could be traced back to his early childhood and the Beethoven sonatas he heard his mother play. But it was at Tcherepnin’s conducting class that he acquired a taste for Haydn and Mozart, and this line culminates in the Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (1916–17). The second line, the ”modern trend,” he claims, had its origin in Taneyev’s reproaches for the ”crudeness” of his harmonies. Then there was the ”toccata line,” inspired by Schumann, that found a perfect expression in his Toccata, Op. 11 (1912), and to which also the third movement (”Toccata”) of the Fifth Piano Concerto belongs. The fourth line is the ”lyrical line” that takes the form of a ”thoughtful and meditative mood” as in the slow fourth movement (”Larghetto”) of the Concerto. Others have identified a fifth line, the ”grotesque,” to which Prokofiev strenuously objected, remarking that he would prefer his music to be described as ”Scherzo-ish” with the three different states of that quality: ”whimsicality, laughter, mockery.” This quality – and the “modern line” with its harmonies that do not sound as crude, anymore, as they possibly once did – is exemplified by the remaining three movements, the first, the second and the fifth.
The Fifth Piano Concerto was one of the last works Prokofiev wrote in Western Europe before returning to the Soviet Union. The premiere was in October 1932 in Berlin under Furtwängler. When the composer played it in Moscow in December it was not well received. Audiences there found his new works “totally unrelated to their own experience and devoid of that joie de vivre which had so impressed them in the best of the composer’s early music,” as writes his Soviet biographer Israel V. Nestyev. Nestyev’s own assessment of the work’s qualities was similar: “Piano virtuosity… now acquired meaningless, complicated forms.” Today, in another world, we may listen to the virtuosity and joy of invention this concerto displays with more open ears, and recognize that, together with Ravel and Bartók, Prokofiev redefined concertante piano playing for the early 20th century.
Published in LAPHIL PRESENTS, October 2007, pp. 65–66.