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.