Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Gramophone Mon 5th September 2016

Tricky fingerings, hand-crossing…Prokofiev pushes his pianist to the limits, says Bavouzet

There is a logic to the fact that, of all Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, the Third is the most famous and the most played. It’s simpler and more classical in its structure than the others; and it has very effective moments that you really remember after the piece has finished. Paradoxically, No 5 is my favourite, with its kaleidoscope of different moods – it changes so much that you need to hear it several times to understand it.

Structurally, the Third is probably the least adventurous of the five concertos, but it does contain the composer’s trademarks: ballet, fairy tale, magic, sarcasm, irony – and virtuosity. If you don’t have success with this piece on stage, you should change your job!

Unusual contexts

The beauty of the opening of the first movement is something you don’t forget. There’s no real development section, just a repeat of the melody with increasing enthusiasm. Between the first and second times there’s this no-man’s-land where Prokofiev seems to observe from a distance the music that’s to come. I think this passage is the most original thing in the entire concerto. There’s an entrance of the piano that includes probably the only example of the use of castanets in a context unconnected with Spanish music. Prokofiev wanted something distinctive; a woodblock would be too thin, so he opted for castanets. At the end of the first movement, for the first time in the concertos, Prokofiev employs something he will use in the Fourth and Fifth: the same musical material but played faster. The coda is a fast version of the recapitulation.

Ballet is what the andantino of the second-movement theme is all about – you really have the sense that a curtain is opening on to another world. You want it to be gentle and charming in the first variation when the piano enters. (Incidentally, it’s only the first rhythm that is common to all variations.) The second variation is jubilant; the piano part is marked tempestoso, featuring some of Prokofiev’s spectacular, unplayable hand-crossing. Apparently, Prokofiev had very long arms and, for him, playing bass notes with the right hand and top notes with the left seems not to have been a problem. This variation ends with a kind of knockout. Then comes what I call the Messiaen variation, which Prokofiev plays so fast in his own recording of the work.

Freezing temperatures

There’s an interesting fourth variation, meditativo, featuring a dialogue between the piano and the horn; and here the temperature is freezing – Prokofiev writes freddo (Italian for cold) in the score. I call this variation the Russian winter – suddenly everything freezes over. You have the same tonality and mood in Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations, where the strings have to play tremolo just as they do here. This could almost be considered as the centre of the piece. Then, poco a poco, the theme comes back. (The use of the bass drum is unusual.) There’s a kind of postlude, and the piece could easily finish here – this is quite the most dramatic moment. The piano is making a ritorno assai in E minor and the orchestra is finishing in E major. The E minor key is like a death sentence, along with the bass drum – it makes you realise the piece is not funny at all, that death has always been present.

The third movement is like one great crescendo. It starts at a moderate tempo and dynamic, but the death atmosphere is not over yet. A few pages later you have the same music played again but faster this time, and there’s a kind of turbulence. Then this dies completely and there’s a beautifully shaped melody – it’s probably the only hummable melody in all the concertos. Between the first and second presentations of the melody we have another no-man’s-land. With all the chords, and the melody doubled with the cellos, we think of Messiaen. Then, when the melody occurs for the third and fourth time, there’s this configuration for which the pianist should have three hands, because the melody is played in the middle, but you also have arpeggios. The fifth time the melody comes is the climax (it’s similar to the First Concerto in that the melody is played five times), and there’s some almost-unbearable chromaticism.

All fingers and (no) thumbs

When the fifth occurrence of the melody has passed, we have one of those moments of pure excitement, building up to a kind of complete madness – to the point where the firefighter has to be called to calm everyone down. It includes the only example I know of in piano literature where the pianist must play two keys with one finger. I must confess, I cannot do that. My fingers are not trained to play that way. The thumb, yes, but not the fingers!

Explore more great piano concertos

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis

Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich

Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes

Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough

Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin

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