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Prokofiev wrote his Third Piano Concerto during the years 1916-21—five years in which the world he knew changed out of all recognition. At the beginning Russia was still home. But the old Tsarist regime was completely unprepared for the onset of the First World War and the assault against Germany was poorly managed. Appalling losses followed, stoking up the resentment that would lead to the revolutions of 1917 and the destruction of the old Russia. By the time Prokofiev had finished the Third Piano Concerto, Tsarism had been replaced by Bolshevism, and Prokofiev (no revolutionary sympathizer) found it advisable to stay abroad. At first he tried to make a living in the U.S., and when that failed he tried Paris instead, with more success. And yet Prokofiev never felt fully at home in the West. For him, as for Stravinsky, Russian remained “the exiled language of my heart.” Although the unaccompanied clarinet tune that opens the Third Concerto doesn’t sound quite like any authentic folksong, many have found something characteristically Russian here. The theme seems ready to expand lyrically (strings and flute), but then it is swept away by a racing Allegro full of devilish rapid figuration for the soloist. In music like this we can gauge something of Prokofiev’s own brilliance as a pianist: commenting on Prokofiev’s playing not long after his arrival in America, one journalist dubbed him “the man with the steel fingers.” Nothing stays the same for long however: throughout this concerto mood, textures and character keep changing, sometimes with startling rapidity, and Prokofiev the deft, wicked ironist is rarely far away. The first movement’s second theme (oboe and pizzicato violins) seems jaunty enough, but the clicking castanets add a slightly macabre touch, which is strongly underlined when the theme returns towards the end of the movement. Then in the second movement, Prokofiev seems to take grim pleasure in subjecting his innocent-sounding Andantino (woodwind) theme to all manner of extreme transformations, through the angular violence of Variation III, and the eerie stillness of IV to the violent obsessive climax of Variation V. A more good-natured grotesquerie seems to emerge in the finale, but before long we see the demonic side of the piano again. After a while the tempo drops and a luscious melody, introduced by cellos, is treated to some fabulous intricate decorative work by the piano—magical Prokofievian night


music at its finest. But then the dancing, pounding main theme returns, and the concerto ends in a whirl of steely sound. © Stephen Johnson

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pRokoFIev: pIANo CoNCeRTo No. 3 IN C MAjoR, op. 26

TCHAIkovSkY: SYMpHoNY No. 6 IN B MINoR, op. 74”“pATHéTIque” Tchaikovsky composed the last of his six symphonies (seven if you include the unnumbered Manfred) between February and August 1893, and conducted the first performance in St. Petersburg in October. Nine days later, he was dead—possibly through suicide, hurriedly forced upon him to avoid a scandal. There is, of course, no way in which the music and this premature death can be directly related. But the Symphony was written according to a program which, although Tchaikovsky never revealed it, seems to have been connected to thoughts about mortality; and he willingly accepted his brother Modest’s suggested title for it of Symphonie pathétique—the adjective suggesting not so much pathos as suffering. Significantly, soon after completing the Symphony, he declined a suggestion that he should set to music a poem called Requiem by his old friend Alexey Apukhtin, who had recently died, on the grounds that it might involve attempting to repeat himself, after composing a work into which he had put “my entire soul.” An integral part of Tchaikovsky’s conception of the work was that it should have as its finale “not a noisy Allegro but a long Adagio.” This led to a thorough rethinking of the traditional sequence of movements in a symphony—starting with the first, and longest, movement, which maintains a balance between fast 3

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