I. Allegro brioso II. Andante assai III. Allegro scherzando
Barely out of school, the 20-year-old Prokofiev burst on the Russian musical scene like a force of nature. Audiences accustomed to the hyper-Romanticism of Rachmaninov and the mystical clouds of Scriabin suddenly found their dreams shattered by the aggressive rhythms and highly unusual harmonies of an unruly young virtuoso who refused to submit to conventions. Prokofiev had been invited to perform his iconoclastic work by Konstantin Saradzhev, a conductor who had co-founded the Evenings of Contemporary Music in Moscow and who was also a major promoter of the young Igor Stravinsky. The reviews were understandably mixed, ranging from calls to put the composer in a %u201Cstrait jacket” to prophecies that Prokofiev might become the next great Russian master after Scriabin.
The First Concerto was, without a doubt, a rebellious work, and Prokofiev challenged his elders even more when time came for his graduation concert at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and he chose to play his own work rather than a concerto from the standard repertoire as was expected. But he won over his stern examiners, and walked away with a first prize, which was nothing less than a grand piano. The rebellion had succeeded.
Within the compact format of a fifteen-minute work whose three movements are played without a break, Prokofiev managed to include a large number of musical characters, from the grandiose to the lyrical and offered many delightful examples of musical irony that was to become his specialty. The opening theme with its insistent repeated measures will return in the middle of the piece and also at the very end, unifying the entire work. (For some reason, Prokofiev referred to the three occurrences of his main theme as %u201Cthe three whales.”) Contrasting with the %u201Cwhales” are: a brilliant virtuoso section and a tongue-in-cheek march in the first movement, delicate piano flourishes against an ostinato background in a slower tempo (second movement). The return of the refrain theme melts into the %u201CAndante assai” where the enfant terrible allows himself to indulge in a moment of Romantic reverie; before long, the dreamy melody is completely overgrown with virtuoso embellishments and finally erupts in powerful chord progressions that would not be out of place in a Rachmaninov concerto. The motion calms down and the finale gets underway with a few dry chords played by the plucked strings – a rhythmic framework on which Prokofiev soon superimposes the agile main theme of the finale. A martial second theme shared by the first trumpet and the piano leads into an extended cadenza based on the theme. Then, after a transitional sostenuto section, the tempo gradually picks up again and the music moves inexorably toward the triumphant final appearance of the %u201Cwhale” which concludes the work.