artha Argerich has a real affinity towards Prokofiev Piano Concerto no.3. She learned the piece - literally - in her sleep while her roommate practiced it. By her own admission, she even picked up all the mistakes that her roommate made. The only time she worked on the piece was to correct those mistakes.
Andre Previn introduces Martha on their performance together on 1977 as follows: “It is probably the most popular of the Post-Romantic piano concertos. And this for very good reasons: it is very dynamic, it is very Russian, and it is terribly difficult. Obviously, the word “difficult” has never been explained to the soloist playing tonight.”
About The Music
Sergei Prokofiev completed his third concerto in 1921 when he was 30 years old during a summer holiday on the Britanny Coast. It has a long birth. First sketches were for the 2nd movement dating from 1913. He’s been gathering ideas about the music, but the final output did not show any sign of a mish-mash thrown up to form a piece. Instead, it is inventive and brimming with a rhythmic drive that had become Prokofiev’s style. It is also when the orchestra was elevated from the function as a mere accompanist to an equal partner and had a dialogue with the piano.
Prokofiev premiered it in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock. Prokofiev himself was the soloist. The audience reception at the time was less than satisfying. The taste at the time leaned towards a easier on the ears harmony such as Rachmaninov. Prokofiev is an acquired taste, where as Rachmaninov, you can fall in love with him at first hearing. Out of five piano concertos Prokofiev composed, he only recorded the 3rd one (with Pierro Coppola and the London Symphony Orchestra). Nowadays, it has become one of his most famous pieces.
The concerto consists of 3 movements:
- Andante – Allegro (C major)
- Tema con variazioni (E minor)
- Allegro, ma non troppo (C major)
About The Performer
The story on how Martha learned the piece in her sleep is really mindblowing. That is incredible. I've never heard anything like that in my life. Sure, you learn the Moonlight Sonata by ear, but not Prokofiev. Let alone one of his notoriously difficult concertos. You have to understand that Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 3 is one of the standard concerti used in piano competitions. Just because the piece displays the pianist’s technique and ability to keep rhythm with the orchestra.
Prokofiev 3rd remains her signature piece. No one plays it better than her. Hers has so much character and swagger. It’s like she’s spinning pizza dough. Confident and with gusto, and with a little bit of recklessness that I like. This only comes from performing it hundreds of times. Especially her live performances. Her playfulness and her joie de vivre really shone through. This performance was with Mikail Pletnev who himself was a formidable pianist (winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition) with VFO in Verbier Festival.
Movement 1: Andante – Allegro
00:01 The clarinet solo opens the concerto with a soulful lyrical andante.
00:46 The string begins the allegro section with a scalar passage, starting from the bottom going up in pure diatonic white scale. Building up energy.
00:53 The soloist breaks in with an exciting and exuberant motif. Listen to her accents on the left hand. This is why I love her inventiveness. Especially in left hand’s accents. No one does it like her. It culminates in top trills, then quickly descent down to low E-flat. Look at how she hit the last note. Just like flicking a fly off the keyboard. There’s nothing to it but the sounds produced was gorgeous. Most pianist only took it with the left hand.
01:32 This for me is the highlight of the 1st movement. The acrobatic motif showing the performer’s abilities in playing thick chords lightly and fast. Especially in that rapid three-notes chords over the octave left hand. I live how she pedals this. Not too dry nor too overtly open.
01:40 A dialogue between the piano and the orchestra. They communicated with a Thick-Chord-Language.
02:20 The second theme with a castanets. Love how she played that staccato.
02:35 The piano play the second theme again and expanded it. The oboe plays the theme again with the piano playing a chromatic scale in pp high above.
02:55 The piano also mimics the castanets.
03:15 This part is very pianistic where the hands are on top of one another. It is a broken octaves interspersed with close tones in triplets rhythm!
03:53 The piano ready to close this section with a repeated motif.
04:00 I love how she played the flurry of the last notes. Hitting the last note with the left thumb straight down. So so great!
04:12 Now entering Andante part.
04:35 The piano imitate clarinet theme with a haunting variation on the theme. The bassoon answers.
05:23 This section has a rather eerie feeling to it. Good for a walk in the forest late at night soundtrack.
06:12 Now enters the Allegro part. It is the most difficult part of the first movement. The piano played the scalar passages (similar to the one the strings played in the opening section). First she played only with the right hand, non legato. The motif is repeated again and again, climbing higher. Then the left hand enters. It builds up energy.
06:35 Then it blooms to octaves. Getting more complicated now. Get to the climax with obligatory hair flick. Each note was brilliant. The piano played again the first theme. I love watching her hands work.
07:04 She played the octave-triplet motifs. It creates a spiky attitude. Her hands aimed from high altitude. Very appropriate for percussive music like this. Do it with style, Martha!
07:30 Ascending parallel triads in both hands. Unique to Prokofiev.
08:09 Glissandos. She sweeps the keyboard with the 3rd finger, then punches it at the end with the thumb. Again, this is an innovative and stylish way to play the glissandos. Done with hair flicks (off course). The first motif is chordal with the orchestra, which is simple enough. But then she played the variation of the notes running all over the place with the same pacing. Incredible.
08:12 The second theme is played again with big chords from the piano and shrill of the piccolo. The piano repeat again with spiky variation on high notes
08:43 Hair toss and a glissando bring this to a close.
08:55 Coda. Starting with the swift scalar passage again. Left-hand enters and she always looks to the orchestra at this point, giving them sign to join her. Reached to the top and boom it ends.
Movement 2: Tema con variazioni (E minor)
This is a theme with 5 variations. An example of Prokofiev sarcastic wit in gavotte-like theme.
00:24 Love how Martha swayed with the music. I generally despise musicians that move a lot and try to emote their feeling with silly facial or stupid hand gestures like *cough* lang lang. Are you a musician or a pantomime? But here, it is natural. It’s genuine, not to impress the audience. That is why I love her. She sways back and forth just as the music go back and forth between the bassoon and the strings answering each other.
00:51 Variation 1. The piano enters with trills then ascending E minor scale. Reaching the top B flat with low B flat underneath.
01:24 A development of the variation.
01:53 Variation 2. The tempestuous motif where the piano runs up and down. It grows into a jumpy motif.
02:11 She made huge leaps with both her hands. This is a rather dangerous area. Prone to hitting wrong notes. As a pianist, you should also communicate well with your orchestra since this is a sudden galloping tempo with no preparation beats. Otherwise, your orchestra might get left behind.
02:26 Few of ascending thirds ends variation 2 in a dramatic way. Her sarcastic expression and her pout at the end there. Love it!
02:41 Variation 3 is a syncopated, heavy and lumbering motifs with double basses bellows down below. Meter change to 12/8. She blows her finger. I think she may have broken her nail. You see the nail poking out.
03:57 Variation 4. The wandering meditation of the main theme. A dialogue between the piano and the horns. This is where the soloist can catch a breath. This section is filled with slow descent of chromatic thirds and trills and broken octaves on the right hands. Final hair flicks before the tricky part.
06:40 Variation 5. I love this bit. The pianist enters with a syncopated motif in both hands. Rather simple. The tambourine bash at the end.
06:46 The piano repeats the syncopation again, this time with two notes at a time. The tambourine bashes again.
06:52 The piano enters yet again (the piano did not give up). Now entering at the ‘ wrong’ beat. This time with added notes of triads. If you realize it, Prokofiev keeps adding notes and adding complexity. Tambourine strikes again but the piano continues with syncopation thirds going down the range. And I especially love the flurry end bit there. She played the last note with her left 2nd finger. O My God, that is… tres tres chic!
07:15 Energico notes, the piano and the brass plays together. First the piano only play one note. Heavily accented.
Then more notes gets added. And finally become double octaves. Fast – Cool – Going 80 miles per hour Octaves.
07:43 Then the piano burst into manic swoop up and down in the register. Love how she accented the left hand like a hitting hammer.
07:55 Back to theme again with the piano playfully adding variations in the high notes in a double time obbligato. So many notes.
09:14 The last note of the piano is a very very deep notes of E and G again marking the E minor. Love it that she plays this very darkly. I’ve heard she played this in an even darker manner, which is even better. This is how Prokofiev sarcastic way to end a piece. You now understand why those first audiences find it not so appealing.
Movement 3 – Allegro, ma non troppo
Movement 3 is a firework. It is a rondo with 3 distinguished different parts: Fast – slow – fast. Prokofiev called this an “argument” between the piano and orchestra.
00:09 The bassoon and pizzicato string brings the piece in a rather dark comedy tune. Remember it, you’ll hear it again later.
00:17 Piano enters with its flashy arpeggios.
00:55 I love her body movement here. Again, it is natural. It gives that extra oomph to the sound. It adds more nuance. Like a accented big down bow on the violin. That only can be achieved with the gestures.
01:11 She not only played the piano but with her hair also. She just casually whisked her glorious silver mane. Are You Serious?! As if the music alone is not complicated enough. Here in crazy, high paced scales up and down. She still needs something else to do. Whisking and flipping hair is Martha’s signature move. A note to other female pianist: “Unless you’re as good as Martha, you are not allowed to play with your hair.” Trust me, I’ve seen some mediocre pianist *cough* kathia buniatishvili tried to do the same when her Petrushka was sloppy and all over the place. Not a pretty sight.
01:30 She gave a big and satisfying boom. Such bravura!
01:42 Here she played a variation of the theme, adding “false” note ornamentation. I love how she peeked over her shoulder to the concert master to invite her to join in. She always does that.
01:55 The motif grew into more heavy chordal notes, and transforms into giant double octaves going down. It’s percussive, like you’re playing an extremely sophisticated drums.
You can see a pattern here with Prokofiev, right? He introduces a motif, a simple one. Then add some notes, and then add some more and some more until you got overwhelmed by the insanity.
02:17 Then there’s a turbolento jumble of notes. (Yes, Prokofiev actually wrote ‘turbolento’ just like a turbine engine revving). It then dissipates to close the fast section.
02:45 The slow part (hair grooming time!) The easiest part of the concerto. Yes, easy… before the craziness at the end later. As the soloist, you better enjoy this while you can.
03:40 Simple notes with punctuated arpeggios. She again looks over the orchestra to signal the orchestra to enter. Although, this time it is a fairly simple part. The orchestra can handle this by themselves. But this kind of communication is what Martha loves when she is performing. The constant interactions between musicians. The sudden shrill of the flutes and piccolo just like prehistoric bird calls. Pletnev’s funny hand gestures.
04:50 Then the lyrical theme is sung by the cellos. It is actually too high to be sung by the cello. They sounded rather strained like a baritone trying to sing tenor parts. But it is certainly a unique effect, so I’m not saying Prokofiev made a wrong move. The theme has taken over with violin which off course can sing this more conveniently. It then swells into big majestic notes with the piano flourishing in the background.
07:45 I notice something flew off the keyboard here. I think it’s her torn fingernail got chipped away. Ouch, I hope it doesn’t hurt.
08:04 The music return to the opening fast motif, the most virtuosic of the whole concerto. This is when things got exciting. The oboe enters and gives the tempo, Martha’s expression was priceless. Her face was like: “Are you sure you want to go this fast? All righty, then… Catch me if you can.”
08:15 Look at the hands and finger move with confidence and style. Again, her jazzy accent in the left hand were a genius move. Once you hear it played in this manner, you’ll keep on expecting it. And of course, no other pianists bend it like Martha! She’s the Empress of the piano.
08:35 Now Prokofiev just went bonkers. He added the famously difficult double-note arpeggios. It’s a simple arpeggio, but each note is a consist of two. Sounds easy enough. Until you have to play it as fast as that. I don’t even know who to play that. Seriously! And again: Hair Whisk cue.
08:50 Gotta love her expression here. “Why so serious?” Prokofiev kept on repeating the oboe theme in a layers of heavier chord.
09:18 Look at her left crazy pinky finger. Played the octaves with the little finger hanging out of the edge of the keyboard. (jaw dropped)
That – ladies and gentlemen – was learned in her sleep, now you know why. One can only wonder what she could do after 5 cups of coffee.
09:38 This then went into an overdrive of frantic madness of OCTAVES! Some in clean unison octave, some filled with even more notes. Argh, there’s too many! Prokofiev ended the concerto with the highest note possible on the keyboard. The high C, which is very weak in volume. So when you have to compete with the orchestra blaring its guts out, you need the iron finger of Argerich.
When this ended, I found me fanning myself.
Ooff… That – Was – Incredible!
Martha, as always immediately got up with no fuss, as if she just made ice tea and said to her guest: “I hope that’s good enough for you.”
Once, there was a video on Youtube titled: “Watch this and see why Martha Argerich was the greatest pianist in the world” and it has the last fast part of the movement 3. Very appropriately titled.
As I mentioned before, she played this many times with many conductors. The main reason I choose the Pletnev concert was because she seemed to have the most fun that night. She seemed very relaxed and enjoyed herself the most. And that translate to the music too. It just becomes more joyous and no holds bar bravura passages. The camera also focused more on her. Because, hey let’s face it, when Martha plays, what people wanted to see is her. And to marvel in her superhuman acrobatic fingers.
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