Saturday, September 17, 2011

Forgotten Masterpieces - S. Prokofiev: Concerto for piano no. 2 op. 16 in G minor

Every composition has a context, and this one is no different. It belongs in the category of extremely late Czarist Russian empire music and shares with Scriabin's late works and the early compositions of the followers of Rimsky-Korsikov, a certain transcendent / descendent duality in expression and feeling. The specific context for this work relates to the suicide of a friend of the composer.

This music was written in 1912 when the composer was 21. The Great War had yet to begin and the Czar was still on his throne. The orchestration was later revised in the early 1920's. We can easily mistake what we are hearing for half a dozen film scores which pilfered material from this and other works. I'd rather ask you to look at this music in another way, as brand new a hundred years ago, with all that implies concerning what the music presented to the world for the first time; the logical end of Romanticism in realism, nihilism and dissolution. and ask yourself what in its energy is this music trying to depict? What about this world as depicted drives the young composer's friend to take his own life?

No, this music is not pretty. It can scarcely be considered beautiful in any of the usual senses. I ask, is this music not in fact rather about crushed aspirations, deprived conditions, misery and want, coldness and cruelty, realistically depicted human emotions, complete with the tremendous searing pain and harsh rebukes of natural and human causalities depicted in at times frightful cynicism and stark certitude?

The concerto is scored in four movements, has classical proportions too. The first movement is elegiac, majestic and capped by perhaps the longest (and one of the best written) cadenzas in piano concerto literature. The pianistic techniques required to do everything the movement demands are daunting but never presented as “in your face” technical wizardry, but rather as part of the atmosphere and scenery of the story being told which is surely quite personal. Where the personal in a piece of music can become shared by its listeners, it becomes universal. The second movement, kind of a perpetual motion piece, is intended to tire the pianist (and perhaps the audience) with in this case the perfect depiction of the modern rat race.

What better to follow the foregoing than a pompous procession of comical apparitions, bristling with sarcasm. He calls it an intermezzo. The stomp is broken by melancholy, weird and haunted sequences that could have scarcely made any sense to anyone who first heard them. The pianistic technique required is still formidable. In the land of dreams never to awaken, his deceased friend might be, most likely, if not in hell, at least in a pageant of disjointed causality.

The complex finale defies easy description, except that it summarizes all that went before.

Prokofiev Piano Concerto #2 Op. 16

This live performance in the famous (it should be famous) concert hall of the Moscow Conservatory - Aleksander Toradze, piano with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting. 


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