“Every dog knows the Third Concerto, so every single passage has to be perfect,” Prokofiev told composer Dmitri Kabalevsky in 1937, after having played it many times before to great public acclaim. Prokofiev was a brilliant if eccentric pianist, who gave his instructors at the Moscow Conservancy an infinite amount of aggravation. But Kabalevsky had heard him, in the hotel room next door, going over and over a few measures at a time in a tempo so slow as to be incomprehensible.

I’m looking forward to hearing pianist Andrew von Oeyen playing the concerto at the Portland Symphony Orchestra concert Tuesday. It is one of my favorite works, the most-played recording of which is by Martha Argerich, who emphasizes its athletic qualities, without neglecting its intense lyricism.

Prokofiev himself had a different take on his own work, according to musicians who heard him play it. Here’s Kabalevsky again:

“It is hard to describe the impression Prokofiev made on us that evening … that first performance of his gave many of us an entirely new impression of his music, very different from that gained from the performance of other musicians, who tended to emphasize the elemental quality of the music, the dynamic contrasts and the mechanical elements. The music sounded far richer, far more subtle when Prokofiev played it. Everything he played sounded full-blooded and healthy, both spiritually and physically, everything was colorful, dynamic, but without the slightest exaggeration, the slightest crudity, let alone coarseness. In short nothing ‘Scythian.’ (A reference to an earlier work that some have compared to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’)

“And what was most important, everything was illuminated by the light of sincerity, poetry and human warmth … (T)he whole performance was distinguished by a quiet reserve, a total absence of any external pianistic effects that conveyed an impression of great spiritual calm. With his extraordinary pianistic talents, Prokofiev revealed that rich lyrical feeling in his music which we had failed to notice until then.”

The concerto, written between 1917 and 1921, was premiered in Chicago on Dec. 16, 1921, with the composer at the piano.

It is possible that its inception occurred at the same time as that of the “Classical Symphony,” when the composer was vacationing in Petrograd, studying Haydn and reading Kant. He was also experimenting at composing without a piano. “I wanted to establish the fact that thematic material worked out without a piano is better. When transferred to the piano it seems at first glance rather strange, but after several tryouts it becomes clear that only in this way and in no other must it be done.”

When Prokofiev composed the concerto, he had already established himself as the enfant terrible of Russian music, with his “Scythian Suite” of 1915. The premiere was canceled due to the war, which did not prevent the critic Sabaneyev from calling it “a farrago of atrocious noises.” The review in absentia cost Sabaneyev his job and perpetuated an urban myth that is still going strong today.

That particular farrago did not prevent American critics, who did attend the concerts, from dubbing the composer “a ribald and Bolshevist innovator and musical agitator.” My own favorite is “Crashing Siberians, volcano hell, Krakatoa, sea-bottom crawlers. Incomprehensible? So is Prokofiev.”

The times they are a-changin’ indeed. The PSO will combine the concerto with another controversial work (at least when it first appeared) – the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, and a world premiere of “Diamond Jubilee” by Elliott Schwartz. Schwartz, who is of Russian ancestry, should fit right in. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]