Prokofiev’s Toccata: shinkansen or horse and cart?

A Toccata is a short piece of fast music requiring a high level of virtuosity of the player. Most toccatas have been written for piano, organ and violin. Bach, Schumann, Liszt , Prokofiev and others wrote toccata’s. Most pianists have some toccata’s on their repertoire, if only to show off. But not all. Sviatoslav Richter, for example, liked to play very difficult sonatas, like those by Prokofiev, but he never played anyone’s toccata’s. Not even Prokofiev’s, a real showpiece for some.  It was one of Sergei’s first compositions, Opus 11, dating from 1912 when he was 21 years old.

Nowadays, young pianists consider its interpretations by Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) and Martha Argerich (1941) as the standard. Hurtling express trains. Martha had listened carefully to Vladimir’s version when she recorded the piece at the age of 19. The two renditions are very similar and both clock 4 minutes and 41 seconds.

Prokofiev himself recorded his toccata  around 1919, on pianoroll. Surprise. No hurtling train, but a horse and carriage on a sandy lane. Holes, bumps, ho, shoo, easy. By the end, the carriage rattles down a gentle slope and comes to a standstill with a jolt. What an exciting and adventurous rendition! Some critics say that Prokofiev was not a top pianist. Poppycock. He toured Europe and the U.S.A with his own piano concertos with great success. Others assert that the pianoroll recording is not perfect. I do not think so. Piano rolls and pianola’s were precision instruments.

It is therefore interesting to note that one of the greatest pianists of the past has played this toccata more like Prokofiev. That pianist was Emil Gilels.

Listen to Proko’s Toccata now. First by Horowitz en Argerich, the one followed by the other.

Then by Prokofiev on pianoroll.

Then by Gilels, and compare them all.

As an extra, I add ‘Sergei Sergeyvich plays Sergei Vasilievich’, on pianoroll, 1919. It is Prokofiev’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-minor. Watch the pianola and pianoroll as the Prelude is being played. Amazing.

PS Jazz pianists have their toccata’s, too. Like the A-train by Duke Ellington. To be found on You-Tube, by Michel Petrucciani ( shinkansen ) and by Duke Ellington himself ( horse and carriage ). Great composers have nothing to prove. Not a bad word about Michel, though. I am one of his fervent admirers.

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