Notes from the underground

Let’s face it – last week’s column just wasn’t that good. It had its share of interesting musical information, it had its share of wit – but something was missing. What that was, I can’t say – perhaps panache? I will say, however, that I believe the cause of the unacceptable quality is rooted in my feelings about the music in question. I hadn’t listened to Rimsky-Korsakov in quite some time before I did so last week, and while I enjoyed taking a trip back to my earlier taste in music, my heart just wasn’t there. And so I disappointed you, the loyal reader.

But that’s not going to happen this week – this I swear on my one good leg. This week, I am reviewing a CD which has what is quite possibly my favorite piece of music on it. It also contains a piece that I consider a wonderful little gem, and it contains one of the most popular concertos of this century. This is quite a build-up, isn’t it? I imagine that my editors have already placed the name of the composer in the headline anyway, so I’ll just let the cat out of the bag: it’s the piano concertos of Sergei Prokofiev (CD P76 60)

Prokofiev is a strange composer. He spent his early career in Paris, then longed for and returned to his Russian homeland. His music is difficult to describe, and no one piece can give a sense of the composer as a whole. He had tremendous melodic gifts, a wonderful sense for drama, a love for interesting rhythms, and a terrific wit. Prokofiev’s life and music both center around the idea of conflict: between modernism and classicism, between authority and rebellion, between warmth and mechanism, between Russia and France.

More than any other of his pieces, the Second Piano Concerto deals with these conflicts. It was written in France, lost, and rewritten in Russia. It is a virtuosic, explosive concerto that ranks among the more difficult in the repertoire, but it is also cerebral and poetic. Certainly, it is solemn, but it seems more so in the face of the First and Third piano concertos, which are extraordinarily optimistic. I look at this piece as a journey, with the piano playing the role of the protagonist, but I have never thought of a literal story that corresponds to this concerto. I recall describing the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto in a similar way – this music is best appreciated if you just lie on your bed, close your eyes, don’t fall asleep, and listen. I don’t know that you could fall asleep to Prokofiev, anyway – there’s too much going on.

The Second Piano Concerto opens softly, as the orchestra and the piano each introduce important themes. Listen for the speech-like quality of the piano melody, and keep that in mind as it is brought back in forms that more resemble a shout or a yell than simple speech. The first movement is an amazing work in its own right, centered around a tremendous cadenza (solo for the piano), which builds up to more and more powerful sounds to the highest levels of what the piano can achieve as an instrument. When the orchestra returns, there is nothing to do but end the movement. My former piano teacher played this piece, and one of her teachers told her not to worry about hitting all the right notes when the orchestra returned, because no one in the audience would hear her anyway!

The second movement is a two-minute-long moto perpetuo, with the pianist flying around the keyboard as the orchestra provides bursts of sound to carry the motion along. The third movement is jazzy and rambunctious, and the fourth movement contains moods from the other movements within it. As a finale, the fourth movement is perfect, as it contains a theme which creates such a sense of nostalgia in the listener—one is drawn back to the earlier parts of the concerto upon hearing it.

I can’t possibly explain why I love this piece so much, but it grabs me and never lets me go whenever I hear it. In general, the Third Concerto is the most famous of the five piano concertos written by Prokofiev, and the First is also played quite a bit. The Second is played, but not nearly so much as those two (the Fourth and Fifth are rarely played at all). I’m pretty bitter about this face, and so I had wanted to hear this recording, with Alexander Toradze at the piano and Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra, for quite some time, as I read that the Second Concerto was given special emphasis. This is absolutely the case – it is the best recording of the work I have yet to hear. The recordings of the First and Third Concertos are not as good, though the pieces themselves are also terrific. Listen to Vladimir Ashenazy’s recording (CD P76 28) for those two.

I should end by noting that this piece was very important to my development as a composer, and as an appreciator of music. It is not nearly as Romantic as the pieces we have heard the last three weeks, but it is by no means unapproachable. This is traditional music with lots of spice mixed in, and the resulting flavor is quite tasty. That sounds dirty, but in any event, we’’ll be back next week with more from the Century that is fast drawing to a close.