Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Case of Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953) is an important 20th century Russian composer that I have said almost nothing about on this blog. In my mind he ranks after Stravinsky and Shostakovich but I haven't listened to a lot of his music in recent years. Time to have another listen, I think!


Yesterday Norman Lebrecht published a review of two new books on Prokofiev: one about him and his wife Carolina Codina, a Spanish soprano and the other of his diaries from 1924 to 1933. We learn a few interesting things: both Prokofiev and his wife were Christian Scientists, he was rather a nasty fellow, both to his wife and everyone else, and he was a savage critic of other composers.

Prokofiev was a child prodigy, taking up both piano and composition when very young, inspired by his mother, a music-lover and pianist. At five he wrote his first piano piece and at nine, attempted an opera. Like Shostakovich, though of an older generation, he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Let's listen to an early piano piece, the Sarcasms, op 17, written when he was twenty-one:


Certainly virtuoso, certainly powerful, but, cubist harmony notwithstanding, not terribly enjoyable to my ears. Let's listen to another early work, his first piano concerto from 1914. Here is a very capable young pianist (and young orchestra) with the first movement:


And I have to say that leaves me a bit cold as well. A great number of notes, but not doing very much. Let's listen to the first movement of the second piano concerto. This is Yuja Wang with Charles Dutoit conducting:


Now that is a completely different kettle of fish! Far more interesting: themes with real character, great build-up, expression and drama. Well-worth your time. Let's look for something that is not for piano. How about a ballet? Diaghilev commissioned several from Prokofiev. The first successful one was Chout (The Buffoon), premiered in 1921, in which we can hear the acerbic and absurd humor that seems characteristic of Russia--we find it in the writer Nicolai Gogol and Shostakovich as well. Here is the symphonic suite from the ballet:


Speaking of the symphony, Prokofiev composed seven, of which the Fifth is the most popular. Let's have a listen. Here is David Oistrakh conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. The symphony was written in one month in 1944:


I think we should hear one more piece, the Piano Sonata no 7. Here is the third movement Precipitato by Glenn Gould:



Norman Lebrecht ends his review by saying of Prokofiev that "He was not a very nice man, at all. Just a very great composer." I can't quite agree with that. There are very, very few great composers and I don't quite think Prokofiev is one of them. He is a pretty good composer, though.

7 comments:

Nathan Shirley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Shirley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Shirley said...

​I think I remember a recent post of yours where you say you aren't especially interested in sarcasm in music (or the Russian 'grotesque'). Perhaps this explains why you are lukewarm towards Prokofiev? His music is more consistently sarcastic than just about anyone, even in the most lyrical moments there are strong hints.

I don't think most people would call Prokofiev, the man, a saint, but to single him out as a terrible person likely has more to do with trying to sell some books now that all his diaries are being released in English. Basing his criticism of other composers on notes in his diaries is a bit unfair, he was publicly a champion of a great many (including Ravel). I certainly wouldn't take the hypocritical, self righteous Mr Lebrecht's word for it (even if he is correct on a number of issues)!

One note- Prokofiev's 5th symphony is one of the most popular, but the 1st is by far the most popular of his symphonies (the "Classical").

But what about the many works more popular than the ones you've listed- Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf, Cinderella, the 3rd piano concerto, the two violin concerti, the flute sonata, and others?

I say Prokofiev was not only one of the greatest composers ever, but also THE greatest of the 20th century. Stravinsky is a close 2nd, but his output was much less consistent (especially after moving to the United States). Shostakovich and Bartok I would jointly award 3rd place.

None of the 20th century composers could touch Prokofiev's melodies. He is truly the Tchaikovsky of the 20th century. Shostakovich (and I love him) is generally like Prokofiev devoid of good melody, although he did stumble upon something great from time to time, like in the 8th string quartet, which he understandably reused a few times... brief as it is. Bartok, similar story.

The first two works you post were written when he was still a student, very young. Yet they are still fantastic, not sure how you can be left cold by them! The performances, while technically fine, are not the best, neither of which show understanding of that Russian grotesque rhythm. I'd recommend Richter any day for that.

But enough from me. Just listen to these two pieces-

​http://youtu.be/UddTqdSs9fc?t=8m55s (starting here at the last piece​ [8:55]​, but they're all fantastic)

and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ul1LTaGkFiw

Nathan Shirley said...

Let's try this again... Part 1-

I think I remember a recent post of yours where you say you aren't especially interested in sarcasm in music (or the Russian 'grotesque'). Perhaps this explains why you are lukewarm towards Prokofiev? His music is more consistently sarcastic than just about anyone, even in the most lyrical moments there are strong hints.

I don't think most people would call Prokofiev, the man, a saint, but to single him out as a terrible person likely has more to do with trying to sell some books now that all his diaries are being released in English. Basing his criticism of other composers on notes in his diaries is a bit unfair, he was publicly a champion of a great many (including Ravel). I certainly wouldn't take the hypocritical, self righteous Mr Lebrecht's word for it (even if he is correct on a number of issues)!

One note- Prokofiev's 5th symphony is one of the most popular, but the 1st is by far the most popular of his symphonies (the "Classical").

But what about the many works more popular than the ones you've listed- Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf, Cinderella, the 3rd piano concerto, the two violin concerti, the flute sonata, and others?

Nathan Shirley said...

Part 2-

I say Prokofiev was not only one of the greatest composers ever, but also THE greatest of the 20th century. Stravinsky is a close 2nd, but his output was much less consistent (especially after moving to the United States). Shostakovich and Bartok I would jointly award 3rd place.

None of the 20th century composers could touch Prokofiev's melodies. He is truly the Tchaikovsky of the 20th century. Shostakovich (and I love him) is generally like Prokofiev devoid of good melody, although he did stumble upon something great from time to time, like in the 8th string quartet, which he understandably reused a few times... brief as it is. Bartok, similar story.

The first two works you post were written when he was still a student, very young. Yet they are still fantastic, not sure how you can be left cold by them! The performances, while technically fine, are not the best, neither of which show understanding of that Russian grotesque rhythm. I'd recommend Richter any day for that.

But enough from me. Just listen to these two pieces-

http://youtu.be/UddTqdSs9fc?t=8m55s (starting here at the last piece [8:55], but they're all fantastic)

and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ul1LTaGkFiw

END

Bryan Townsend said...

I do recall saying Prokofiev was not one of my favorites, but I don't think it was for the reasons you mention. I am a fan of the Russian grotesque! You make a powerful argument and now I recall that once before you were suggesting that Prokofiev doesn't get his due.

I think that we get to the truth by discussion and dispute, so let me take another run at Prokofiev, starting with the examples you cite.

And thanks, Nathan!!

Craig said...

I am one of those who is left cold by most of Prokofiev's music. With my kids I listen frequently (almost every day!) to his Peter and the Wolf, but I cannot say that there is even one of his pieces that has ever really stirred or impressed me. I don't understand why he is so highly regarded; I'd take Shostakovich or Stravinsky first, not to mention Britten or Messiaen or ...

Mind you, I don't particularly like Tchaikovsky either, so perhaps I am unredeemable!