Prokofiev as Pianist

by Mark Arnest

1. "Rollography" of Duo-Art Reproducing Piano Rolls

2. Discography of 78 RPM Electrical Recordings for His Master's Voice (HMV)

3. Notes on Prokofiev's 78 RPM Recordings

1. Duo-Art Reproducing Piano Rolls

These were recorded around 1920. All of them have been reissued on Fonoteca 1019; most of them were reissued in 1995 on LaserLight 14 203 (these are marked below with an asterisk); and a few are available on miscellaneous CDs (e.g., the Toccata on Olympia OCD 208). Br.: British catalog number. The source of this "rollography" is Larry Sitsky, "The Classical Reproducing Piano Roll" (Greenwood Press, 1990). Used with permission.

 Composer  Piece  Duo-Art Catalog #
 Glazunov  Gavotte, Op. 49 #3*  63770
 Miaskovsky  Grillen, Op. 25 (#s 1 & 6)*  73888
 Mussorgsky  Pictures at an Exhibition (Promenade; The Old Castle)  70299
 Mussorgsky  Pictures at an Exhibition (Bydlo; Ballet of Chicks in Their Eggs)*  65910
 Prokofiev  Gavotte, Op. 12 #2*  62530
 Prokofiev  Love for Three Oranges: Intermezzo*  64770
 Prokofiev  Love for Three Oranges: March  British Duo-Art 8018
 Prokofiev  Marche, Op. 12 #1*  61600
 Prokofiev  Prelude, Op. 12 #7*  6153-3
 Prokofiev  Rigadoun, Op. 12 #2*  63440
 Prokofiev  Sarcasms, Op. 27 (#s 1 & 2)*  62100
 Prokofiev  Scherzo, Op. 12 #10*  67740
 Prokofiev  Tales of an Old Grandmother, Op. 31 (#3)*  6826-3
 Prokofiev  Toccata, Op. 11*  6391-3
 Rimsky-Korsakov  Scheherazade, Op. 35 (Fantasia, transcribed by Prokofiev)*  7001-4
 Rachmaninoff  Prelude in g minor, Op. 23 #5  6198-4
 Scriabin  Prelude, Op. 45 #3*  65120 
 Scriabin  Winged Poem, Op. 51 #3*  65120

A Note on Reproducing Piano Rolls: A reproducing piano is the player piano's aristocratic cousin. Both are powered by air coming through a perforated roll; however, a reproducing piano can also reproduce the performer's dynamics and pedaling, making it a much more sophisticated and artistically satisfying instrument.

But also much harder to maintain. Be skeptical of piano roll recordings. Keep in mind that a roll is a record of how the piece was played, not how it sounded, and that it may sound awful if played back on a badly-maintained instrument--or even on a well-maintained instrument that's very different from the one used when the recording was made. The LaserLight reissue is fair; the piano is nothing to write home about, but the disk can be listened to with pleasure, which isn't always the case with recordings of reproducing piano rolls. I haven't heard the Fonoteca reissue.


2. 78 RPM Electric Recordings for His Master's Voice (HMV)

All of Prokofiev's 78 RPM recordings have been reissued on Pearl GEMM CD 9470 (and also on an out-of-print EMI CD). All compositions are by Prokofiev. The concerto was recorded in London with Pietro Coppola - Francis Ford Coppola's granddad - conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The solo recordings were made in Paris.

 Piece  Recording Date  HMV Matrix #
 Concerto #3, Op. 26  June 27/28, 1932  2B 2950/55
 Conte de la Vielle Grand'mere, Op. 31 (#2)  February 26, 1935  2LA 338
 Conte de la Vielle Grand'mere, Op. 31 (#3)  February 12, 1935  2LA 313 
 Four Pieces, Op. 4 (#4, Suggestion diabolique)  February 26, 1935  2LA 338
 Four Pieces, Op. 32 (#3, Gavotte)  March 4, 1935  2LA 351
 Etudes, Op. 52 (#3)  February 25, 1935  2LA 335
 Gavotte from "Classical Symphony," Op. 25 (tr. Prokofiev)  February 12, 1935  2LA 313
 Sonata #4 in c minor, Op. 29 (Andante only)  March 4, 1935  2LA 350/51
 Three Pieces, Op. 59 (#2, Paysage)  February 25, 1935  2LA 335
 Three Pieces, Op. 59 (#3, Sonatine Pastorale)  February 12, 1935  2LA 312
 Visions Fugitives (#s 3,5,6,9-11, 16-18)  February 12, 1935  2LA 310/311

A Note on Electrical Recording: The electrical process (i.e., recording into a microphone on to a wax master) was introduced in late 1924 and quickly replaced the acoustic process (in which performers played into an acoustic horn on to a wax master). The microphone had been around since the invention of the telephone in the 1870s; however, the signal was too weak to be used in recording. The invention of the Fleming amplifying valve around 1920 solved this problem, though record companies didn't adopt it until the rise of radio began hurting their sales. There wouldn't be another major advance in recording technology until magnetic tape replaced wax as the recording medium, which occurred gradually between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. Until tape made long "takes" and micro-editing possible, records were made in 4- to-5-minute segments (the amount that would fit on one 10- or 12-inch side of a record). There was no way to change a muffed passage without redoing the entire side. Inevitably, some wrong notes sneaked by.

The sound of Prokofiev's records is quite good, though it takes a few minutes for ears unused to 78 RPM "sizzle" to adjust.


3. Notes on Prokofiev's 78 RPM Recordings

(Technical Stuff for Pianists and Musicologists)

Though Prokofiev is rightly remembered as a composer rather than as pianist, he was in many respects an ideal interpreter of his music. He played with more finesse - and less brute force - than many of his modern interpreters. This means Prokofiev's records lack the element of sheer adrenalin that, for instance, William Kapell brought to the 3rd Concerto; but they're nevertheless exciting, clear and intelligent - without ever seeming cerebral or systematic. He makes the Visions Fugitives sound as ephemeral as their name implies.

His playing was strongly rhythmic, and he preferred sudden, strong accents and terraced dynamics to crescendos and decrescendos. When he did use crescendos and decrescendos, he usually punctuated them with accents. The Concerto 1st movement abounds with these. In the 2nd movement, he omits the written diminuendo beginning at bar 23 (five bars after #55, :58 to 1:06) and instead terraces the dynamics down, dropping one level each bar.

Prokofiev's melodic accents usually fall on strong beats, and frequently on long notes. Surprisingly, he accents few syncopated notes, making them even more striking when they occur. His accents are virtually always dynamic, and only occasionally agogic. It's an architectural approach aiming at a clear rhythmic structure. Prokofiev wanted the listener to feel the downbeat.

Prokofiev generally used the pedal sparingly (see, e.g., Suggestion Diabolique and the first movement of the 3rd Concerto). The melody is always louder than the accompaniment, never ducking below it as pianists of the generation before him often did (though occasionally a counter motive will emerge, as in Sonatine Pastoral, 2:44-2:48). Prokofiev also seldom broke his hands or rolled chords except where marked in the score. These traits make him one of the first modern pianists. (However, in the Andante from the 4th Sonata, Prokofiev adopted a thoroughly romantic conception of tempo. See below.)

Poulenc likened Prokofiev's playing to "the steady unwinding of a precision clockwork motor spring" and said that Prokofiev performed his own music "very straightforwardly. . . . Rubato made his flesh creep." (Quoted in Horowitz, The Ivory Trade, p. 97.) But we must read Poulenc's statement in the context of a time when the sense of pulse was much more supple. Compared to Paderewski, Prokofiev's playing is indeed straight; compared to most modern performances of his music, it contains a wealth of rhythmic inflections.

Some of these inflections fall under the category of style, such as the rushed eighth notes in Visions Fugitives, #6. These upbeats are shortened to give added emphasis to the following downbeats. Prokofiev generally rushes short groups of notes that form upbeats, arriving at the downbeat slightly early. Examples include Visions Fugitives #s 5, 10, and 11.

Other inflections are related to the genre, such as the amusingly elongated upbeats to the Gavotte, Op. 32 #3. (Taruskin discusses this performance a bit in "Text and Act," pp. 188-90.)

Finally, a few of Prokofiev's rhythmic inflections are expressive - or at least charming. He lingers almost imperceptibly on the upbeat to the Gavotte from the Classical Symphony, a cute effect. He makes more of it when the opening returns. There's a striking pause in the Concerto, 3rd movement, to emphasize the expressive falling major 7th (bar 188, two bars before #117).

There are also a few instances of what appears to be unnotated traditional rubato in Prokofiev's recordings. For instance, in the Andante from the 4th Sonata, Prokofiev rolls the upbeats to bars 40, 43, 47 and 50 (slightly anticipating the left hand in each case). Rolling the upbeat chord was a favorite romantic device - especially when, as here, it's followed by a melodic leap downwards.

However, these can also be explained as an attempt to keep the part writing clear. In the upbeats to bars 40 and 47, the melody and accompaniment form an octave. Played simultaneously, there's a danger that this would simply sound like an octave, not two independent parts. In the upbeats to bars 43 and 50, the problem is the proximity between the melody and accompaniment - a minor third. Again, anticipating the left hand preserves the integrity of the parts.

Prokofiev nearly always played grace notes before the beat, not on it. The same goes for rolled chords, which end on the beat - even when it would have been less disruptive to the line to begin the roll on the beat (e.g., Visions Fugitives #18). In lyrical passages, though, he occasionally adopted a more conventionally romantic interpretation, beginning the rolled chord on the beat and delaying the upper note slightly. These breaks are nearly always notated, as in the Concerto 1st movement, bar 148 (#28, 4:15).

There's another romantic inflection to which he apparently didn't object: string portamento (e.g., at the opening of the Concerto).

Attitude Toward the Text: Prokofiev takes many liberties with his text, which won't surprise anyone who has studied composers' interpretations of their own works. His performances lend credence to Peter Kivy's hypothesis that much of what a composer indicates in the score falls under the category of suggestions rather than commands ("Authenticities," Chapter 2). Prokofiev would probably have allowed performers far greater leeway with his music than are commonly taken. However, his interpretations are truer to the score than are, for instance, the performances of Rachmaninoff or Bartok; unlike them, I know of no instances in which Prokofiev actually changes the notes. However, the only performances I've compared against the scores are the Andante to the 4th Sonata, the Concerto, and the Visions Fugitives. Here are a few of the more interesting changes in these performances:

(1) Prokofiev marks two ritards in the Andante to the 4th Sonata. He takes ritards in roughly the places he's marked - but only roughly. He performs the "rit. assai" in bar 24 as an allargando in bar 22, followed by a substantial ritard in bar 23. He makes no ritard in bar 24, simply playing it in the new, slower tempo.

Prokofiev begins the ritard marked in the second half of bar 52, which precedes the return to the opening theme, in the second half of bar 51. Almost perversely, he resumes tempo at the point where he's marked the ritard, and then ritards again in the second half of bar 53. This seems to match the musical sense of the passage more closely than the notated ritard; he lengthens first the cadential trill, and then the (still brief) moment of resolution.

(2) The running 16-note passages in the 3rd Concerto (e.g., from #32 to #36, i.e., bars 173-193) are punctuated by unmarked accents, all of which fall on the beat, usually at the top of a figure. These intensify the passage's scherzando character.

(3) He plays the upbeat to the second variation in the concerto's slow movement forte, not pianissimo with a crescendo as marked. This change probably resulted from his experience performing the concerto, making it clear that this is an upbeat and not the end of the first variation.

(4) The recapitulation of the first movement of the concerto is considerably faster than the opening allegro (mm. 160 instead of mm. 144). This may just be a disagreement with Coppola, however. You can feel Prokofiev pushing the tempo almost as soon as he enters, and it may have just taken him awhile to get the conductor "up to speed."

(5) The most interesting deviation by far concerns the tempos in the Andante of the 4th Sonata. Though the movement is marked simply "Andante assai," Prokofiev's performance suggests that his experience performing the piece led him to serious second thoughts about the movement's tempi. The fact that he chose to record this interpretation indicates that he took his alterations seriously; all his other recordings are of complete works (albeit miniatures for the most part).

He begins very slowly (mm. 50) and accelerates gradually to mm. 53 in bar 8. In bar 13, where the 16th notes begin, he suddenly adopts a faster tempo (mm. 60) and accelerates over the next two bars to mm. 68. After the ritard referred to in (1) above, Prokofiev adopts a still-faster tempo at the "a tempo" in bar 25: mm. 82, which is fully 60% faster than the opening tempo.

At the change to 12/8 in bar 33, Prokofiev suddenly slows the eighth notes considerably, so that the dotted quarter = 44 (equivalent to mm. 66 had the pulse continued as quarter notes). The "molto tranquillo" at bar 36 is faster at dotted quarter = 49. This tempo continues through the second theme.

The reasons for these changes lie not in modern performance practice but in the romantic practice Prokofiev inherited, and in most other cases rejected. In contrast to the modern structuralist view - of which Ronald Smith has said "we have come to equate unity of conception with unity of tempo" - Prokofiev here adopted a fundamentally romantic approach to tempo. This approach balanced two factors: the most characteristic tempo for each section, and the most psychologically effective relationship between adjacent sections.

In this interpretation, Prokofiev brilliantly fuses these two factors. The accelerando at the beginning is characteristic, following the melody's upward rise. The faster tempo in bar 13 switches the pulse from eighth notes to quarter notes, which seems to open up a sense of inner space (the new tempo also effectively puts the 16th-note movement further into the background, preventing them from sounding clumsy, as they sometimes do). The new tempo at bar 25 both continues the rising excitement and preserves a favorite romantic form of structural characterization: a new key, a new tempo. The slower tempo in bar 33 intensifies the effect of this stormy passage (almost like a camera close-up). This tempo also allows Prokofiev a great moment when the second theme begins. Generally, faster = more exciting, but Prokofiev counteracts this by dropping the dynamic level from forte to pianissimo. Although the pulse is faster, it's weaker, giving the listener a sense that the melody is gliding along a very delicate surface. No other recording of this passage is so sweetly beautiful.

Despite all his tempo fluctuations, in one grand sense Prokofiev has unity of tempo: The tempos of the beginning of the piece and the beginning of the second theme (bar 39) are effectively identical (mm. 50 and mm. 49).

Pedal: Prokofiev takes even more liberties with his pedal markings, toward which his attitude appears to have been that the indication "Ped" means he wants it, but that otherwise it's up to the performer whether to use it. For instance, in Visions Fugitives #9, he instructs the performer to pedal the whole note in the bass in bar 8, which might lead a reasonable performer to conclude that Prokofiev intended the opening to be played without pedal; but in fact, he uses the pedal almost continuously from the beginning of the piece. However, Prokofiev plays bar 13 without the pedal - a striking effect that he repeats when the passage recurs.

--Mark Arnest <c> 1996


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