Piano Concerto No. 4 (left hand alone) and Orchestra, Op. 53 (1931)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert The Circle of Shostakovich, performed on April 11, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Sergei Prokofiev first heard Dmitri Mitropoulos perform and simultaneously conduct his Piano Concerto No. 3 so magnificently in Paris, the composer, who had himself toured with the piece, reportedly remarked rather peevishly that “I guess I will have to write another for myself.” He had recently squandered his creative talents on an ill-fated Concerto No. 4 for the one-armed Paul Wittgenstein. The normally obstreperous pianist, who initially bridled at performing the distinctive opening cadenza that gives the Ravel work written for his unique circumstances such dramatic power, had also complained that the two compositions fashioned for him by Richard Strauss were disproportionate and unnecessarily modern. Towards Prokofiev, Wittgenstein exhibited the most polite deference while still steadfastly refusing to even attempt to perform his new concerto. In fact, the opus languished unheard until another German concert artist, Siegfried Rapp, lost his own right arm in an even more brutal version of global conflict and contacted Madame Prokofiev three years after the death of her husband, receiving permission to give the world premiere of the piece in Berlin in 1956.

The structural peccadillo of this inventive miniature is an insouciant circular design. The first movement, although marked Vivace, is indeed a Rondo, more suitable in formal musical architecture as an ending section. We enter the fashionable world of the Stravinskiian Neoclassical almost immediately and it is easy to recall two of Prokofiev’s earlier works, the “Classical” Symphony No. 1 and the brisk, one-movement First Concerto. The opening coolness establishes a certain detachment, reminiscent of Haydn, a holding out of the emotional content at one arm’s length. Thoughtful and measured, the Andante is the finest Prokofiev slow movement to date, foreshadowing in its patient construction of intensity the great third movement of the Fifth Symphony. The composer, who lost the only copy of his Second Concerto when his tenants burned it for warmth while he was away on concert tour, almost immediately rescued the main theme of this section once it became apparent that Wittgenstein would never perform the work as a whole, giving it new life and form as one of the loveliest melodies in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. In the Moderato section, Prokofiev rolls up his sleeve and fashions an entire clinic on the subject of touch, rising to the challenge to make the writing for only one hand as varied as that for both. Wittgenstein claimed a lack of understanding of the piece as his basis for rejection, but it seems more likely that he was afraid of this movement and its wide range of colorful tactile demands. But it is the incredible fourth movement that identifies this composition as uniquely Prokofiev. Only seconds over a minute in length, this razor-sharp distillation of the opening material is an exclamation point that ends like an ellipsis. Satisfying the urge to conclude with a Rondo after all, only the composer of a set of solo piano pieces called Sarcasms could have written such a signature close.