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In common with Beethoven, Prokofiev wrote five piano concertos, but only one of them is played often. It is the Third, which was first performed in Chicago in December of 1921, during the composer’s self-imposed exile from his native Russia. Although the work had been in progress since 1911, its elements are united in an exciting and colorful display piece that betrays no signs of its long gestation period.

Prokofiev had made his debut as a pianist-composer in 1908, when he shocked the audience with such daring works as his Suggestion diabolique, and he would go on to write a significant body of work for the keyboard (including an astonishing trilogy of so-called “War” Sonatas – Nos. 6, 7, and 8 – between 1939 and 1944).

Prokofiev’s distinctive style, blending rapid and percussive playing with liquid lyricism and pungent harmonies, makes his music almost instantly recognizable. You will hear pre-echoes of his wonderful Romeo and Juliet ballet score (1935-36) in this Concerto, which the composer himself introduced in Chicago, and would do so later in Los Angeles.

The first movement opens with a haunting theme in the clarinets that is soon displaced by energetic activity in the strings, making way in turn for the piano’s entry. The staccato passagework required of the soloist is of the most exciting (and exacting) order. An interlude for oboe (with castanets) leads to a development of the opening melody, then more fireworks for the soloist and orchestra.

The second movement is in the form of theme and variations, alternately rapt and poetic, dazzling and dynamic. The third and final movement returns to the brilliant style of the first, uniting the composer’s almost schizophrenic proclivities for extremely (even decadently) luscious melody and brittle, machine-like rhythmic energy.

— Dennis Bade