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Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1

Album cover image

Edition Live Karel Ancerl Vol. 3 PR 254 004

--© Harmonium Mundi (Praga Productions) 1992

What the pianist mostly needs is brio and fast fingers. Moravec proves to have both, and the result is a scintillating performance.

Album notes

The programme conducted by Karel Ancerl illustrates the career of a young Russian pianist-composer between his last two years (1912) of study at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his departure (1918) for fifteen years of roving around the western world. Contrary to Igor Stravinsky, his elder and frère ennemi, who left for Switzerland at the beginning of the war, Sergey Prokofiev only decided to emigrate when the concert halls of the new Petrograd remained despairingly empty.

His early years were those of a child prodigy, coddled by his mother who had noticed the gift for music of a son who began to compose at the age of nine and for whom she organized private lessons from Reinhold Gliere. The child even composed an opera entitled A Feast in time of plague after Pushkin. When he was twelve, his mother took him to visit Glazunov in Saint Petersburg, the imperial city, where she decided to take up residence in order to supervise Sergey's studies at the Conservatory. The young student was not slow to challenge the established aesthetics of the tuition he received. In her piano class Madame Essipova attempted to put a stop to her pupil's modernist leanings and to discipline his unruly playing. Nicholas Cherepnin, who taught him conducting, was lucid enough to warn him : You do nor have a gift for conducting but, since I believe in your career as a composer, I know that more than once you will be called upon to conduct your own works that is why I will give you lessons in conducting. The atmosphere in the other classes was less serene. In the harmony class, Liadov begged him to go and study with R. Strauss and Debussy the composition classes of Virol and, above all, Rimsky-Korsakov, much attended, had no effect upon this young Turk who only obtained his diploma through the leniency of the composer of The Golden Cockerel. In his note-book we can read the following appreciation a gifted student, but lacking maturity. Happily a young composer, Nicholas Miaskovsky (1881-1950), his elder by ten years, who was to be Prokofiev's untiring supporter up until his death after World War II, introduced him to latest developments in contemporary western music, that of Richard Strauss, Max Reger and Claude Debussy.

Prokofiev did not find it very profitable to attend the classes of Virol, Liadov and even Rimsky-Korsakov, considering himself already as a colleague concerned with forging a personal style for himself pure and hard. The essential quality of my life (and his principal defect) has always been the quest for the originality of my own musical style. I hate imitations as well as things that are already common knowledge. It was in this frame of mind that, in the spring of 1912 when still at the Conservatory, he composed his Piano Concerto in D-flat Major which he had originally planned as a modest concertino. The work gradually developed along the lines of what seems to have been a model: Liszt's Concerto in A Major. Although divided into three episodes, the concerto is a poem in one single movement. Prokofiev stated with complete modesty that this was perhaps his first more or less mature composition with regard to its conception and realization. It received its first performance on 7th August 1912 at the Summer Concerts in Sokolniki (outskirts of Moscow) with the composer as soloist ; his talent at the keyboard, his authority and percussive sonority, made a great impression. The critics, and first of all Miaskovsky in the review Music, defended the revolutionary work as one of the most original in the piano concerto repertory whereas musicians, such as Sabaneyev in The Voice of Moscow, although defenders of Scriabin, did not shrink from writing : I consider that it would be a dishonour to music to pretend to give this word to Mister Prokofiev's harsh, energetic, rhythmical and uncouth score.

The work was to prove itself a good introduction to the sound world of Prokofiev who was soon to rid himself of any kind of formal constraint in order to evoke, freely, the action and sentiments suitable for the tales, ballets, operas without words... For the piano, he used powerful chords, rapid legato phrases, successions of chords in octaves in order to obtain a virtuoso counterpoint in the left hand, marked and unexpected contrasts... Thus Prokofiev's writing was judged by nature more motoric than lyrical, whereas his brilliant piano style was nothing but a highly romantic method of expression in disguise. Prokofiev presented the concerto as follows: a sonata(-form) allegro, with an introduction repeated after the exposition as well as at the end, a short andante before the development, the latter taking the form of a scherzo ending with a cadenza [announced by the entry of the tuba] introducing the recapitulation. The development allegro scherzando is short and proposes the only complete rehearing of the main theme, in toccata style. Melodious and conquering, the successive rehearings of this theme help to give to the whole work a feeling of unity and clarity of expression; it establishes itself as a leitmotiv. Treated, in its presentation, with a magnificence worthy of the great Russian romantic concertos, like Tchaikovsky's 1st or Rachmaninov's 2nd, the substance of which is expressed in the first few notes, it is immediately repeated in an athletic manner which entirely erases the hedonism of the initial version. Thus in less than fifteen minutes, we may observe the moods later to become most characteristic of the future composer of War and Peace: uneasiness with the Meno mosso before the recapitulation in the Allegro brioso, the dream with the singing clarinet in the Andante assai, the naturally springy, choreographic phrasing which gives the character and spirit of the indication scherzando at the beginning of the final Allegro, lastly, the hymnlike strength at the climax of this finale.

In the spring of 1914, Prokofiev entered for the Rubinstein Competition whose programme traditionally included a piece from the Well-tempered Keyboard and a classical concerto. He proposed his own concerto, considering that although he could not perhaps surpass his rivals in a conventional score, there was a chance that his own would impress the examinators by its technical novelty : they would then be unable to judge whether he was playing it well or not! The rules stipulated the performance of a published work. Jorgenson managed to produce twenty copies in time for the jury. The performance was masterly and Glazunov, who presided the jury, was obliged to proclaim Prokofiev the winner, a decision which, in his opinion, could only encourage his pernicious tendency.

His mother, as a reward for the prize he had won after so great a struggle, offered him a journey abroad. Prokofiev chose London where he had already travelled in the previous year to discover Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. He met Diaghilev who suggested that he should work for him. They discussed a choreography based on the 2nd Piano Concerto, but Prokofiev preferred to compose an opera based on Dostoyevsky's The Gambler. Diaghilev decided the matter by asking him to write a ballet on a subject which the symbolist poet Serge Gorodetzky would prepare for him on his return to Saint Petersburg. This ballet, after various (mis)fortunes, was to enjoy considerable popularity under the title Scythian Suite. In March 1915 in Rome, Diaghilev refused the sketches of the original ballet, Ala and Lolly, finding no spice in this Scythian tale ; instead he commissioned the music for Chout.

Prokofiev nevertheless returned to the score and arranged it into a symphonic suite with four tableaux resuming the story of Ala and Lolly, two Scythian heroes who lived beside the Black Sea and whose story is related by Herodote. The God of Evil (Tchoujbog) kidnaps Ala, nymph of the forests and daughter of Veles, the Sun God. But Lolly comes to deliver her after a combat against Tchoujbog and seven subterranean monsters. His triumph is due to the intervention of Veles who causes the sun to shine at the appropriate moment putting the forces of evil to flight. The original score owed much to the primitivism of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The orchestra remains plethoric in the suite, calling for no fewer than eight horns, five trumpets, four trombones, a tuba, the woodwind by four, two harps, a piano, celesta and the strings. For a long time this score symbolized barbary, savagery, illustrating the indications feroce and tempestoso prescribed for the outer episodes. But a spontaneous, thrilling lyricism invades the sunrise governing Veles' action ; the strings, piano and woodwind establish a mood of enchantment in the Night and a flute over a somewhat oriental carpet of strings maintains the spell of the luminous Veles. Prokofiev conducted the first performance of this suite on 29th January 1916 at the Marinsky Theatre in Petrograd creating a scandal which unfortunately obtained little effect because of the war... Glazunov left the house, furious, whereas the orchestra, in spite of Zilori, a conductor entirely dedicated to the Scythian cause, was ready for civil war The first performance in Western Europe did not take place until 29th April 1921 in Paris under the baton of Serge Kussevitsky; and it was a triumph.

The years 1915-1917 were certainly the most prolific for Prokofiev. Besides Visions fugitives and the 3rd and 4th Piano Sonatas, he worked on such scores as the opera The Gambler and the 3rd Piano Concerto, the two cycles of Poems for voice and piano, op.23 and 27 (the latter to texts by Anna Akhmarova), finally, the Symphony in D Major and the cantata Seven They Are. The symphony, now known as the Classical, is one of the first of Prokofiev's scores to do away with the piano, both in conception and orchestration. The composer stated : I spent the summer of 1917 in complete isolation... I had deliberately left my piano in town, wishing to try to compose without its help ; I had to admit that the thematic material I composed away from the piano was, generally, of better quality... I decided to compose an entire symphonic score without the help of the piano. In such an undertaking, the orchestral coloursalso became sharper and clearer. Thus the plan of a symphony in the style of Haydn evolved because, as a result of my work in Cherepnin's class, Haydn's technique had become particularly clear to me and this familiarity made it easier for me to throw myself without a piano into these dangerous waters. Lastly, the chosen title was intended as a challenge to make the geese angry and, with the secret hope that I could but gain from this if, in time, the symphony proved itself truly classical. Apart from the third kettledrum, the orchestra he used was that of the late 18th century. More than a pastiche, the work is indeed an unaffected and cerebral copy of the model: the smile of the imitator is one of ravishment with an inveterate taste for gambling, nor one of irony. Four movements follow on without interruption : the Allegro is followed by a Larghetto, carelessly romantic, in the form of a theme and variations. The Gavotte (an ABA triptych, with a central episode entrusted to the woodwind) takes the place of a scherzo. Prokofiev seems to have delighted in making more square than ever (4/4 time) a rhythm which, twenty years later, was to be that of young Juliet. The final Rondo is also cast in sonata form with an opening theme supported by the kettledrums, a second by the woodwind, lastly, a third by the flutes and strings in dialogue, at the same time captivating, bubbling with the spirit of life while allowing Russian neo-popular charm to corrupt the slavism. The work received a successful first performance on 21st April 1918 ; the composer conducted before a somewhat deserted Petrograd.

The works Prokofiev composed during the revolutionary year 1917 were only slightly marked by the events of October. In his autobiography, the composer clearly points our that No.19 of Visions fugitives marked presto agitatissimo e molto accentuato is an illustration of the February days, but in fact there is scarcely anything other than the Akkadian incantation, Seven They Are which may be considered as a real contribution to the Bolshevik cause. The work is written for heroic tenor, chorus and large orchestra on a text by Balmont after a Chaldean prayer to chase the demons away, chiselled in cuneiform script on the walls of an Assyrian temple. These inscriptions had just been discovered by the German archeologist Hugo Winkler. Balmont used it to produce a few poems published under the title The Calls of Antiquity.

This cantata is addressed to the Spirit of the earth entrusted with charming away the evil geniuses (there are seven!). Prokofiev seems to have been attracted by the primitive character of this text, by its rhythmic insistence, by the fact that mischievous spirits buried for a long time are awakened and have to be brought under control, in the image of the revolutionary instincts suddenly liberated which the New Russia is obliged to centralize and render beneficial. Balmont's poem is stuffed with repetitions, onomatopoeia, alliterations, the word Semero (lit. group of seven) returning like a leitmotiv, primitive and spell-binding. The mixed chorus, divided into four, then eight distinct voices, is supported by a gigantic orchestra with a particularly rich brass section (eight horns, four trumpets, three tenor trombones, one bass trombone, a tuba and bass tuba) and percussion. The solo tenor part is essentially declamatory and literally proclaims the text over rising tritones and well-accentuated dissonances. The chorus, with raucous accents, supported by rumblings in the orchestra, evokes a birth of humanity which it is still difficult to differentiate from the basic wickedness of the seven mischievous spirits which make heaven and Earth shrink, crushing men like men grind the corn... These savage accents at times assume a frankly Scythian character and are only transformed into sacred or pagan prayer in the Andante assai which forms the last sixteen, masterly bars, proposing the first piano, then ppp dynamic of the whole score. This work, requiring considerable forces, had to wait until 29th May 1924 before receiving in Paris its first performance which Kussevitzky conducted in a French adaptation by Louis Laloy. Kussevitzky also gave the first American performance, unfortunately in an English translation by A. Flotat. The first edition, Soviet, appeared in 1922 but was only a vocal score. Through the initiative of Rozhdestvensky, the first audition in USSR had to wait until 1956 ; it was therefore posthumous ; Stalin and Prokofiev died at only a few hours interval on 5th March 1953.

Balmont had become a suspected poet since his emigration in 1920. The score was filed and remained in safe-keeping in spite of Prokofiev's revision in 1933 (the version performed by Ancerl). It was considered eloquent proof that the composer had not understood anything about the significance of the events he had witnessed. Thus the only truly revolutionary work by the composer of Romeo and Juliet was forbidden.

--Pierre-E.Barbier Translated by Charles WHITFIELD


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