Sunday, March 29, 2009

Left Hand Music

 Piano Concerto No. 4
by Sergei Prokofiev

"Prokofiev has made an immense, priceless contribution to the musical culture of Russia. A composer of genius, he has expanded the artistic heritage left to us by the great classical masters of Russian music -- Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov."  - Dmitri Shostakovich 

Of the five piano concertos written by Sergei Prokofiev, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26, has garnered the greatest popularity and critical acclaim. The concerto radiates a crisp vitality that testifies to Prokofiev's inventive prowess in punctuating lyrical passages with witty dissonances, while maintaining a balanced partnership between the soloist and orchestra. Prokofiev began work on the concerto as early as 1913 when he wrote a theme for variations which he then set aside. He revisited the sketches in 1916-17, but did not fully devote himself to the project until 1921 when he was spending the summer in Brittany. Prokofiev himself played the solo part at the premiere on 16 December 1921 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock. The work did not gain immediate popularity and had to wait until 1922 to be confirmed in the 20th century canon, after Serge Koussevitzky conducted a lavishly praised performance in Paris. Prokofiev himself also performed his two previous concertos in Chicago, as well as conducting the premiere of his opera, The Love for Three Oranges, with the Chicago Opera (predecessor of the Lyric Opera).

It was not until a decade later in 1931 that Prokofiev would return to this form when Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of Ludwig and seventh of nine children born to that wealthy Viennese family) commissioned the composition of a concerto for the left hand only. Wittgenstein would commission several concertos from composers including Ravel, Korngold, Britten and others. Prokofiev sent his concerto to Wittgenstein who rejected it and it remained unperformed for more than a quarter century until 1956 when it was performed by Siegfried Rapp.

Last night the pianist Dmitri Alexeev and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Daniele Gatti performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat for the Left Hand, Op. 53 for the first time in Symphony Center. It is a delightful, yet strange four movement piece, with two bright short toccata-like movements framing two larger, more serious inner movements. The overall effect is charming and the concerto would probably be heard more often if it was not so fiendishly difficult for the soloist to play. Nonetheless Dmitri Alexeev was up to the challenge last night and the CSO performed admirably in support of his efforts. The remainder of the concert was very traditional and well-suited to the CSO with the Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, "Italian" by Felix Mendelssohn and the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55, "Eroica" by Beethoven as the beginning and end of a wonderful evening of classical music.

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