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Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major Op.26

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26

Completed in 1921 in a rural summer retreat at Étretat on the coast of Normandy, the Third Piano Concerto nevertheless contains not a hint of anything that could be called pastoral. It is one of those works that seem to reflect, not the actual surroundings of the moment, but a quite other environment that the composer in hankering after. The atmosphere it breathes is a of a world of musical centres, busy concert life, excitement, exuberant virtuosity, and applause.

The first movement is a modified sonata Allegro in structure but not in spirit. The subordinate theme introduced by the oboe, its grotesque flavour accentuated by pianissimo castanets, is heard first in a kind of off-centre A minor (the relative of the home key) and duly returns in C minor in the recapitulation. But in Prokofiev’s essentially decorative tonal language, with its frequent harmonic sideslips, the form-building power of the key system is minimal. The broad structuring of the movement is achieved rather by a scurrying theme in semi-quavers heard first in the strings after the brief Andante introduction. At its initial appearance, this motif completes within four crescendo bars its work of whipping up excitement preparatory to the soloist’s entry with the ‘real’ first theme; later in the movement it recurs twice at much greater length, transferred to the piano.

What this device cleverly achieves is a kind of rapprochement between the ritornello form used in the classical concertos of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and the simpler sonata structures of Mendelssohn’s and Tchaikovsky’s concertos. In reality, there is no ritornello here. But this brilliant passage, heard always over a rhythmically articulated pedal C, manages to sound like one, and creates a comparably satisfying sense of punctuation at each of its crucial repetitions.

By virtue as much of its charm as of its polished workmanship, the variation-form second movement, beginning andantino and them shifting in the direction of faster tempos, may be regarded as the crown of Prokofiev’s concerto. It is followed by a relaxed finale in an approximation of ternary form. The luxuriant harmonic warmth of its slower middle section is soon displaced by a resumption of the main Allegro theme, and the concerto ends with a dazzling display of bravura in the composer’s familiar brittle vein.

© Phillips


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