“His dazzling performance…must have lifted Orchestra Hall a few feet off its foundation. It was hard, in fact, to imagine any pianist seizing this formidably difficult concerto in a mightier grip than this Russian firebrand…. Even in a day when keyboard virtuosos are thick on the ground, Kozhukhin is special.” So raved the Chicago Tribune after a performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto.
Now hear Kozhukhin in Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, composed and first performed by the composer himself when he was still a student. The premiere didn’t exactly go as planned. The suit Prokofiev had intended to wear was stolen on his way to the concert. The only available piano was less than ideal. The orchestra didn’t start making sense of the piece until near the end of the rehearsal. And the horn players refused to play from parts that weren’t transposed to the necessary keys, requiring Prokofiev to spend five hours in the sweltering summer heat copying out new parts for them. All that aside, the performance turned out pretty well for the 21-year-old composer and his piece, which received a warm reception.
The program opens with a work by another Russian composer, the Chamber Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich, an orchestral arrangement of his Eighth String Quartet, written in 1960. Shostakovich said the quartet was inspired by the devastation of Dresden during WWII and dedicated it to "the memory of the victims of fascism and war,” but in a letter to a friend he said, “I've been thinking that when I die, it's hardly likely that anybody will ever write a work dedicated to my memory. So I have decided to write one myself. The dedication could be printed on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet.’” After returning from Dresden with the finished score, Shostakovich bought a bottle of sleeping pills, considered suicide, and referred to the quartet as his last work. After a few days, his spirits lifted and he went on to live another fifteen years.
Brahms is at his sunniest and most genial in his Serenade No. 2. Composed when he was only 25, the piece was a turning point in his career. The first person to see and love this music was Clara Schumann, with whom Brahms had a lifelong friendship—and infatuation. Listen for beautiful parts for the woodwinds and bask in an abundance of lovely melodies.