Is it really the same composer? If you listen to the world famous musical fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev, then his “Scythian Suite”, the distillate of the unfinished ballet “Ala and Lolli”, then doubts may arise. But that was Prokofiev’s hallmark – suitable for every occasion and purpose, …
Is it really the same composer? If you listen to the world famous musical fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev, then his “Scythian Suite”, the distillate of the unfinished ballet “Ala and Lolli”, then doubts may arise. But that was Prokofiev’s hallmark – having the right musical concepts in mind and suitable for every occasion and every goal. The Dnieper man, born about 130 years ago, was undoubtedly one of the richest musical minds of the 20th century. Always unpretentious.
This is what represents the introduction to the instruments of the symphony orchestra, dressed in a story adapted to children. “Peter and the Wolf”, composed for children in 1936 on behalf of the Moscow Theater, was probably the beginning of their listening biography for countless music lovers. With Peters’ lively and carefree string theme, the strutting clarinet motif on the cat’s velvet paws, the bird’s fluttering and excited flute voice, grandfather’s restless and informative bassoon solo, singing the duck’s somewhat puffy oboe and the menacing horns of the horn hunters’ striking mechanism. Anyone who has heard these melodies many times will never forget them. This work already shows the great art of Prokofiev: he knew how to compose it in a catchy way, without becoming simple or even ungrateful. Even as an adult, you can still enjoy the story of the clever boy who, with the help of his animal friends, managed to catch the wolf and ultimately even save his life: contemporary to this day.
The work for orchestra and narrator is just one possible entry into Sergei Prokofiev’s musical cosmos. The continuation of his music for “Leutnant Kishe” – a cinematic satire on an officer of Tsarist Russia, which, thanks to a linguistic and bureaucratic error – exists only on paper, but which, from his birth to marriage until the funeral, has a similar programmatic plasticity. The suite begins with the distant awakening of a cornet, followed by a cheeky flute solo, punctuated by the snare drum, to which the other string and wind instruments gradually join up until the tutti fortissimo. Then the play returns to calmer waters and ends as it began – with the cornet from afar. You can’t tell which piece of the finely crafted five-part of about 20 minutes is the climax – the worn-out romance (quoted from Sting in his hit “Russians”), the grand wedding in which the cornet again with a wide range melody The troika, which offers much more than pimped Russian folklore, or the “burial” of the paper soldier, to which we rightly wink here, set the tone.
With seven completed symphonies, Prokofiev quantitatively belongs to the middle field of classical composers, whose works of this genre can be counted as part of the musical canon. And his are definitely part of it! Not only because of his premiere, the very popular “Classical Symphony”, in which he tries to transport the structures and motifs of the first representatives of the genre into his present and thus to answer the question of how a Joseph Haydn composes at the Twentieth century would have.
Prokofiev’s development as a symphonic composer, like that as a composer in general, is anything but simple. Also thanks to the respective cultural and political environment in which he worked. But this is a chapter in itself. The daring beginnings are followed by works of a whole new caliber. Anyone who expects to continue with the two where they left off with the one is seriously wrong. Having left abroad, the former child prodigy of music now appears as expressionist-dissonant, and also breaks with the structures in its two-movement structure. Numbers three and four are based on Prokofiev’s opera “Der fierige Engel” and his short ballet “The Prodigal Son” and are therefore very similar in appearance to Prokofiev’s ballet music.
Marked by the imminent end of World War II – the composer and his family have been living in the Soviet Union again since 1936 – is his fifth symphony. Created in Moscow in January 1945, this extensive work oscillates between epic and irony, calm and playfulness. A wide range of emotions, which is no coincidence: “I tried to convey the main idea of this symphony – the triumph of the human spirit,” said Prokofiev later. In addition to the “Classic”, the Fifth is one of the master’s most played and recorded symphonies on sound media. Drunkenness is followed by a hangover – Prokofiev’s Sixth (1947) is the tragic counterpart of Optimist Fifth, carried by the memory of the victims of the atrocities of previous years. Also those of the Great Patriotic War. A conciliatory conclusion was the seventh in 1952. A work which closes the ring to the first in its lyricism and harmonic simplicity. Notably because it was originally conceived as a work for a youth orchestra. As such, it would be demanding enough.
By the way, compared to the symphonies of other composers, the total number of recordings in the case of Prokofiev is quite manageable. Walter Weller recorded them with the two great London orchestras (Brilliant) in the 1970s, Seiji Ozawa at the turn of the millennium with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon). The most recent, artistically very independent, moreover on six CDs – technically only four would be necessary – generously filled with lesser-known orchestral works, is the one recently released by Naxos with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under the American conductor of Marin. Alsop. But the recording with Mstislaw Rostropowitsch and the Orchester National de France (Erato) is also worth listening to – not least because it is rare for the performer and the composer to know each other personally.
Which was not without consequences. In 1950, together with the then 23-year-old cellist, Prokofiev began reworking his cello concerto in E minor, which he had completed in 1938 but without much success. The composer had heard the soloist in concert with him three years earlier. The result is the Symphonic Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, which, despite its complex harmony, offers deeply lyrical moments – although very different from its seventh. And in part, it looks like another masterpiece from Prokofiev’s pen, his 1st Violin Concerto, a filigree composition that was supposed to sound like music from the future, not just when it was written and premiered between 1914 and 1923. To this day, one cannot escape the delicate magic and brash virtuosity of this spherical and ethereal work, which the perfectionist Prokofiev has calculated to be one hundred percent effective. And think again: at the same time, he was also working on the daring “Classical Symphony”. Music made from the same wood, but worked with completely different tools. Somewhere in between is his more down-to-earth second violin concerto, premiered in 1935, like the first, more aimed at advanced listeners. Just like the Scythe Suite mentioned at the beginning, an expressionist work similar to Igor Stravinsky’s scandalous ballet “Rite of Spring”, wild, archaic, characterized by an expressive-erratic rawness and sudden twists between tutti and chamber music.
Which would only touch on a fraction of the very productive artist’s music. Piano music, piano concerts, ballets, operas, vocal symphonies: there is much more to discover in the world of Prokofiev – for beginners and connoisseurs, for friends of euphoria as well as for news lovers sounds.