Program Notes: Conrad Tao Plays Prokofiev

Program Notes

Program Notes: Conrad Tao Plays Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26:

World Premiere: December 16, 1921; Chicago, Illinois (27 minutes)

  • Though Sergei Prokofiev was from the Ukraine, his Third Piano Concerto has strong American connections.
  • Prokofiev was the soloist in the first performance with the Chicago Symphony in 1921, under the direction of Frederick Stock.
  • Maestro Stock was one of Prokofiev’s early advocates in the United States, programming several of his orchestral scores.

Prokofiev’s five piano concertos hold a similarly important place among his compositions as those of Ludwig van Beethoven. Like Beethoven, Prokofiev first made a name for himself as a pianist, and most of the early keyboard works were written as a vehicle to display his own brilliant technique. The Third Piano Concerto was a big success that secured Prokofiev a permanent niche in classical repertoire. This piece succeeds both as an orchestral composition and as a solo work. Contemporary with his “Classical Symphony,” the Third Concerto sprang from the same rich vein of musical thought. Like that miniature masterpiece, it required virtually no revision, for in both works, Prokofiev struck gold on the first try. Prokofiev dedicated the Third Concerto to the poet Konstantin Balmont, five of whose texts he had set the same year in his pieces, Op. 36. Balmont heard portions of the concerto’s score as it was nearing completion and reacted by writing a sonnet. Theirs was one of the richest friendships of this period in Prokofiev’s life.

Prokofiev finished the Third Concerto two years following his arrival in New York. The composer played the premiere of the Third Concerto with the Chicago Symphony on December 16, 1921. In a letter to Serge Koussevitzky written shortly beforehand, Prokofiev commented, “My Third Concerto has turned out to be devilishly difficult. I’m nervous, and I’m practicing hard, three hours a day.”

Romanticism, classicism and modernism are finely balanced in this dazzling work. After an opening clarinet solo, the Third Concerto launches into music for the machine age. However, Prokofiev reminds us in the second movement, based on the Baroque Gavotte, what a glorious melodist he was. Notice the shifts between lighter moments and deeper passages. These variations also reveal his quirky sense of humor. The piano has some gymnastic moments that require athletic prowess as well as dancing ability. Prokofiev’s humor is particularly noticeable in the finale, which the composer described as “an argument for piano and orchestra.” Witty and fun, his piece concludes with a dynamic finish, leaving listeners joyfully entertained.


Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93:

World Premiere: December 17, 1953; Leningrad, Russia (57 minutes)

  • Dmitri Shostakovich lived his entire adult life under Soviet regimes, most notably Joseph Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship.
  • Early in his career, he played piano in silent movie houses.
  • Soviet cultural ministers targeted him on two significant occasions for failure to comply sufficiently with socialist realism, resulting in formal censure.

Shostakovich lived through the Second World War. While he composed only three of his fifteen symphonies–his seventh, eighth and ninth–during the war years, several other Shostakovich symphonies address the horrors of war. His Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 is, in many respects, the most powerful of them all. In the most general terms, we may think of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony as summing up his emotional reaction to war and the post-war period. The overall format, four movements arranged slow-fast-slow-fast, is similar to his structural layout in the Fifth and Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphonies, with the addition of an introductory Andante to the finale in the Tenth Symphony.

Even within that general format, however, some ambiguities emerge. There is no real slow movement. The first and third movements, Moderato and Allegretto respectively, are slower than the second and fourth. A disproportion in movement length is evident. The first movement is longer in duration. The second–the scherzo–is a concentrated ball of fury lasting only about four minutes.

The third movement introduces Shostakovich’s musical monogram: D-S-C-H. In German transliteration, his name was spelled Dmitri Schostakowitsch. In German musical spelling, Es means E-flat, and H means B-natural. D and C are the same in English and German musical spellings. Therefore, the four pitches D-Es-C-H (D, E-flat, C, B-natural on the piano keyboard) provided the composer with a musical signature. Such acronyms were not unprecedented in music. Both Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann, for example, adopted similar procedures.

For Shostakovich, this four-note motive proved extremely important in many works through the 1960s. The Tenth Symphony was the first composition in which it played a significant role as a musical building block, making the symphony intensely personal. Its prominence in the third movement and recurrence in the finale are an affirmation of self–Shostakovich’s defiant declaration of the individual in the face of Soviet oppression. The opening violin theme and a recurrent solo horn call also bind the third movement together, ushering the listener into a masterful and sonorous finale.


Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26

Sergei Prokofiev

Born April 23, 1891, in Sontzovka, Ukraine | Died March 5, 1953, in Moscow, Russia

Beethoven, Prokofiev and the Piano Concerto

Both Beethoven’s and Prokofiev’s first two piano concertos are works of comparative youth, representing the earliest flowering of a genius that clearly foretold far greater potential. Neither composer returned to the solo piano concerto later in life. Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, the “Emperor,” was completed in 1811 and embodies his middle-period “heroic” style. Prokofiev wrote his Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos in 1931 and 1932, before the great ballets which have become a cornerstone of his reputation.

Prokofiev’s first two concertos for piano and orchestra are heavy on youthful exuberance and dazzling technique while somewhat lighter on formal discipline and use of orchestral resources. Whether by design or by coincidence, however, Prokofiev emulated Beethoven’s turning point in his Third Concerto (Op. 37 in C minor) by striking a far more satisfying balance in his own Third Piano Concerto, Op. 26.

Dedication to a Poet

The composer’s biographer Harlow Robinson has described the Concerto in comparison to the songs Prokofiev had set to Konstantin Balmont’s texts the same year.

“Like the Balmont Songs (Op. 36), it balances flashiness and introspection, irony and romanticism, yielding a felicitous synthesis of Prokofiev’s harmonic experiments, his rhythmic genius and his instinctive understanding of the possibilities of the piano. Mature and confident, the Third Concerto does not strive to shock, like much of his early piano music.”

Russian Roots, American Gestation and French Harvest

Many of the sketches for the Third Piano concerto date from his years spent in Russia, and some evidence indicates that certain ideas date back as far as 1913. The work was actually completed in France while Prokofiev sojourned in the coastal Breton village of Saint Brevin-les-Pins. The concerto shares the irrepressible energy and dazzling keyboard bravura of the first two concertos, always reminding us what a splendid pianist Prokofiev was.

According to Prokofiev’s widow, the initial performance of the Third Piano Concerto and a subsequent one in New York were baffling to audiences. Within a few years, however, the concerto was enthusiastically received and had become one of Prokofiev’s major vehicles for his concert tours. A highly personal work, it has a compact structure reflecting more discipline than the two earlier concertos. It achieves a more rewarding balance of drama, whimsy and introspection. The slow movement, Andante with variations, highlights Prokofiev’s extraordinary gift for melody, and the dazzling finale reveals a delightful kinship with the young Dmitri Shostakovich.

Instrumentation: two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, castanets, tambourine, solo piano and strings.


Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia | Died August 9, 1975, in Moscow, Russia

Politics and Culture

Nearly seven decades ago, on February 10, 1948, Stalin’s powerful lieutenant, Andrei Zhdanov, issued a resolution condemning Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other Soviet composers. Their “crime” was failure to comply sufficiently with socialist realism. Shostakovich had already been the target of Stalin’s formal censure in 1936, when an infamous attack in Pravda lambasted his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

In March 1953, Stalin died, by a peculiar quirk of fate on the same day as Prokofiev. Gradually, as the tight controls of Stalin’s police state eased, Soviet Russia breathed a little easier. This was the beginning of the so-called “thaw.” Shostakovich emerged from his compositional shell to dust off some works he had withheld. Three important premieres took place late in 1953: his Fourth and Fifth String Quartets and the Tenth Symphony. The much-anticipated symphony was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Yevgeny Mravinsky led the Leningrad Philharmonic in the first performance at the conclusion of the city’s 250th anniversary celebrations.

In the Composer’s Words

At a Composers’ Union conference devoted to the Symphony in spring 1954, Shostakovich deliberately avoided references to its content or program. Following the conference, he published a critical analysis of the Symphony in Sovetskaya Muzyka. Declining to state his intent or assign any specific meaning, he wrote, “I will say just one thing: in this work I wanted to portray human emotions and passions.” He remained enigmatic and non-specific about the Symphony when he said, “Let them guess for themselves.” In his memoirs, published posthumously as Testimony in 1979, Shostakovich told Solomon Volkov:

“…I did depict Stalin in music in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years.  The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.”

All these remarks by the composer, spanning a quarter-century, are studiedly neutral. However, the music of the Tenth Symphony is anything but.

The lengthy Andante that opens the finale serves as a transition between the meditation of the third movement and the unbridled optimism of the symphony’s conclusion. As in the symphony’s opening, low strings introduce the material. Here, however, Shostakovich allows for some sunshine to break through these murky clouds. A series of woodwind solos—first oboe, then flute and then bassoon—intensify a leaden mood. Presently clarinet and flute hint at the sprightly theme that will form the basis of the march-like Allegro. Elements of cyclic structure occur in the echoes of the second movement that intrude on the positive atmosphere.

David Fanning, in a monograph entitled The Breath of the Symphonist: Shostakovich’s Tenth, includes an appendix devoted to thematic allusion. The appendix lists identifications in the published literature of explicit quotation and implicit reference to other musical works in the Tenth Symphony. It includes not only a half-dozen of Shostakovich’s own compositions but also works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Modest Musorgsky, Béla Bartók, Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg and Gustav Mahler.

This diverse collection does not mean that Shostakovich had no original ideas. His assimilation of such a broad range of material into his own music tells us a great deal about the man, more than he had revealed in five years. In the overall continuum of Shostakovich’s output, the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies have historically been viewed as a wartime trilogy. Some critics have suggested that Shostakovich may have intended the Tenth to be a “peace” symphony. What is more likely is that it is a detailed, personal and defiant self-portrait. The predominance of the D-S-C-H motive in the last two movements is a strong and proud assertion of individuality in the face of Soviet oppression.

Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes (second also doubling piccolo), three oboes (third doubling English horn), piccolo clarinet, three clarinets (third doubling E-flat clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, xylophone, triangle and strings.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023