Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Concerto Guide: Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19

If this is Tuesday, it is time for another installment in my concerto guide. I was inspired to do this by two excellent series that Tom Service did in The Guardian. The first was a year-long survey of contemporary composers and the second was a year-long survey of the symphony. I greatly enjoyed following along and disagreeing with Tom! But they were still about the best attempts at music education that you can find in the mass media these days. Anyway, I thought, someone should do one on the concerto, an equally long-lived genre that has survived quite well to the present day.

I am going in chronological order so the next important concerto after last week's Piano Concerto No. 2 by Prokofiev is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Prokofiev, completed in 1917, but not premiered until 1923 at the Paris Opera. On the same program was Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments conducted by the composer.

What strikes me initially about this piece is how very lyrical it is compared to the red meat aggressiveness of the piano concertos. It is fascinating how different solo instruments affect the composer's approach.

The first movement opens quietly with a long, wandering violin solo marked sognando (dreamily):


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This texture, with the violin joined by solos from the flute and oboe, accompanied by minimal strings, goes on for quite a while. According to Wikipedia:
He composed the concerto's opening melody in 1915, during his love affair with Nina Mescherskaya.
The movement becomes more and more energetic and finally introduces a trill motif:

This is followed by another new theme, this one marked narrante (narratively, as if telling a story). That's a very odd sort of instruction, but we just saw it last week in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto.

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The tempo is still the opening Andantino, but with this skipping theme festooned with grace notes, it feels as if we are in a faster tempo. Shorter and shorter note values appear and the violin is soon engaged in this kind of virtuoso passagework:

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This all comes to an end with a pause and the music begins again, still in the same tempo, but the violin introduces a pizzicato theme:

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This leads to entirely new kinds of passagework for the violin:

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This is using stopped notes interspersed with open strings, an effect we call campanella on the lute and guitar--not sure what it is called on the violin. This ultimately culminates in a strumming passage that you would swear was from a guitar concerto:


Things ultimately slow down and a new tempo is introduced: Andante assai (Assai più lento che la prima volta) meaning much slower than the first tempo. In a characteristically Prokovian move, he creates a unique, crystalline texture that I am tempted to call "fairy dust" that is a kind of strange recapitulation. He returns to the original D major and the original 6/8 time signature (the narrante theme was in 4/4), but now the flute has the wandering melody while the solo violin and harp accompany with 32nd notes:


And that, believe it or not, takes us to the end of the movement. He has transmuted the opening theme into "something rich and strange" to quote Ariel's song from The Tempest.

Now let's listen to the whole piece. Here is Hilary Hahn with the Spanish Radio Orchestra:


3 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

(I look forward to listening to the Prokofiev, soon. But... did you see Tom Service the other day on the monsters created by, oh, I cannot remember his name: Brahms and Coldplay, the Eroica and Radiohead, Bon Iver and Copland; 'hybrid music'. I do not see the point. It was just yesterday, I guess. Steve Hackman.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Hadn't seen that yet, but thanks for the tip. I think it just made the Friday Miscellanea (where things like that go).

Rickard Dahl said...

The most interesting section in the first movement is the one with the narrative part. The second movement has a very interesting character to it (thin texture but still somewhat heavy sound). The third movement is my favorite. Overall it's a nice concerto.