Usually, we assume that, when writing a piece of music, the composer is firmly in control of the process as musical ideas are organized, refined, and developed. Yet, on occasion, the music seemingly comes alive, takes on a mind of its own, and dictates to the composer what it wants to be.
This was Sergei Prokofiev’s experience when composing the Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55. “Having accumulated a good number of vigorous themes,” Prokofiev intended to write a straightforward piece called “Music for Piano and Orchestra.” As he worked, the piece grew in complexity and rose to the status of a full-fledged concerto. Composed in 1932, the work stands as Prokofiev’s final completed piano concerto. It was premiered on October 31 of the same year with the composer at the piano, accompanied by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Fifth Piano Concerto is not only filled with “vigorous themes.” It opens the door to a wild menagerie of conversing instrumental “characters,” each with their distinct persona. Listening to this music, we get the sense that these “characters” are taking over and breaking all of the rules. This is evident even in the unconventional, formula-shattering structure of the piece, which involves five brief movements rather than the normal three.
Prokofiev’s colorful musical characters can be overwhelming and outrageous. On occasion, they resemble a group of unruly house guests who make themselves at home and leave behind a mess. With ironic humor and biting sarcasm, they spring to life amid quirky melodies that are filled with wild surprises. Both the solo piano and orchestra lines erupt with blazing virtuosity. Through sheer power, the piano is rendered a percussion instrument.
The first movement (Allegro con brio) sweeps forward with boisterous energy. The second movement (Moderato ben accentuato) is a sardonic march, filled with glissandi in the piano. Echoes of Prokofiev’s ballet music abound. The clownish final bars sneak away. The third movement (Toccata. Allegro con fuoco), a virtual interlude, returns to the first movement’s opening theme for a whirling romp which seems in danger of spinning out of control. The Larghetto which follows offers a quiet and intimate respite. The bright, shimmering flute meets a dark string blanket. A magically expansive melody unfolds with endlessly inventive harmonic turns. Following a passionate climax, the music drifts off into dreamy serenity. The final movement (Vivo) brings the Concerto to a harrowing and adventure-filled conclusion that would befit a John Williams film score. In the final exhilarating bars, the door closes abruptly.
I. Allegro con brio:
II. Moderato ben accentuato:
III. Toccata. Allegro con fuoco:
Five Great Recordings
- Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55, Michel Béroff, Kurt Masur, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Amazon
- Sviatoslav Richter with Witold Rowicki and the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
- Vladimir Ashkenazy with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra
- John Browning with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
- Yuja Wang with Gianandrea Noseda and the Verbier Festival Orchestra (concert performance)