Score With Smart People: Sergei Prokofiev

Why I Love Prokofiev

After years of peeking through the windows into the world of 20th Century Classical music, I finally walked in through the door of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1.

One of the great Czech violinists, I can’t remember whether it was Jan Zelezny or Ivan Zenety, came to the city of Plzen to play the Concerto with the local Symphony Orchestra. I was living in Plzen at the time, teaching English and coaching the Pilsen Tornadoes American Football team. The city is the largest in the Western Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, and is probably most famous for being the home of Pilsner Urquell beer, arguably the world’s best.

One of my private students, a good friend named Jerry, owned an importing company. On the day of the concert, his company was putting on a large exhibition at the local fairgrounds. My friends and I already had tickets to the concert, but we were torn about whether to attend the symphony or the exhibition, largely because there was sure to be a plentiful supply of free food and drink at the fairgrounds. In the end, we decided to go to the concert, and then walk to the exhibition, which was only a couple of blocks from the concert hall.

In the middle of the first movement of the Concerto, the concert hall was rocked by several powerful explosions. Many of the concertgoers, the majority of whom were old enough to vividly remember Russian tanks rolling into Prague, began to panic. The orchestra continued to play, and the soloist never lost his concentration despite the screams of the panicking crowd inside and the thunderous cacophony outside the hall. In the eighth row, a half dozen younger music fans, myself among them, were rocking with suppressed laughter. My friend’s company, the one giving the exhibition just down the road, mainly imported fireworks from China. The explosions were the result of Jerry working to impress his clients.

Needless to say, Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto has been a personal favourite ever since.

Sergei’s Student Days

Prokofiev was born in the Ukraine in 1891. His enormous musical talent became apparent when he was still a little kid, and he composed his first piano pieces when he was just five years old. He didn’t manage to complete his first opera, however, until he was almost nine. Young Sergei was reportedly well aware of the nature of his gift, and the professors at the St. Petersburg Conservatory were split between those who loved him for his talent, and those who hated him for being a snot-nosed little punk. (Reading about Prokofiev’s student days is kind of like reading an Insidepulse forum post about Randy Orton). For his graduation project, Sergei played his own First Piano Concerto. The head of the conservatory, composer Alexander Glazunov, ran out of the recital hall with his hands over his ears. The professors who remained behind awarded the piece First Prize.

For the rest of his career Prokofiev’s gifts for melody and rhythm would clash with his need to experiment and do things differently, and this would lead to persistent problems with critics and authorities.

The two sides of Prokofiev’s creative personality can be clearly heard in a work he composed three years after graduating, his Symphony No.1, also called the Classical Symphony. In this work, he successfully mixes the kind of formal structures that Haydn and Mozart used with modern harmonies, and he manages to both pay tribute to and satirize the older style of symphonic writing. It’s a total masterpiece.

See the World! Me, You’ve Seen Already

In 1918, Prokofiev moved to America. He had some success as a musician, but the critics didn’t understand his compositions. He wrote angrily about “”¦the marvellous American orchestras that cared nothing for my music, of the critics who baulked so violently at anything new”¦” and he left for Paris. He spent more than a decade in Paris, where his music was widely admired, but eventually left to return home to Mother Russia. Presumably, Prokofiev expected to be welcomed home and treated to a comfortable life as a hero of the people.
Among the pieces that Prokofiev composed while seeing the world was another great Masterpiece, his Third Piano Concerto. It’s a virtuoso work that demands a lot of both the soloist and the orchestra in order to balance its tender melodies, caustic humour, nostalgia, and cheekiness.

Back in the USSR

Sergei was indeed welcomed home, and he enjoyed a brief period of happiness and comfort during which he composed some of his sunniest and most accessible music. The Lieutenant Kije Concert Suite, his music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the Second Violin Concerto, and The children’s piece Peter and the Wolf were all composed during this period, and all rank among the most popular pieces composed in the 20th Century.

It wasn’t long, however, before Prokofiev fell out of favour with the Stalinist regime. Once his tendency to experiment had become the target of official criticism, Sergei was pretty much screwed. He was forced to write kiss-ass compositions like 1939’s Toast to Stalin. He published a grovelling apology for having written original and challenging music. His wife was thrown in prison. His health failed. The creative flame was beaten out of Prokofiev until not even a spark remained.

Prokofiev died on March 5th, 1953, one day after Stalin. Russia’s greatest musicians, including Sergei’s friend Sviatoslav Richter, were unable to pay their respects to the composer because they were forced to play at the memorial service for the murderous dictator.

Even while his life was being systematically destroyed, Prokofiev still managed to create one last masterwork, his sombre and deeply moving Fifth Symphony.

Highlights of my Prokofiev Collection

Prokofiev recorded a version of his Third Piano Concerto, accompanied by the London Symphony conducted by Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather Piero. It is wonderful. I also love the version recorded in 1968 by the brilliant Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich in partnership with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the Claudio Abbado.

Abbado also accompanies The Israeli Schlomo Mintz in my favourite version of the two violin concertos.

With a little searching, you should be able to find a bargain-priced CD of Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony in the 1st and 7th Symphonies and the Lt. Kije Suite. It would be my top recommendation for anyone wanting to hear Prokofiev’s music for the first time.

Most critics seem to prefer Herbert von Karajan’s version of the 5th symphony, but I far prefer the greater emotional warmth and exhilaration of Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the Israel Philharmonic.

If you already share my love of Prokofiev’s music, you may want to check out Sviatoslav Richter’s definitive recordings of Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8.

In my opinion, Prokofiev’s most challenging, difficult, and ultimately rewarding composition is his Piano Concerto No. 5. There is only one version worth considering, the towering monster of intensity recorded by Richter with the Warsaw Philharmonic.

Instead of pimping the other music columns or my wrestling column this week, I’m going to take a look at what’s most interesting to me on the rest of the site.

On the TV page, The Dean of Wrestling Reviewers continues his ongoing coverage of Joey.

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You can read about Captain Canuck on the Nexus.

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