Melodic surprises in the shadow of Stalin

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Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante is tough and beautiful! © Charles Thibo

I can claim some stage experience, oh yes! Not as a pianist, but as an actor. I must have been around 16, and our local school needed someone to play a grandpa. The size did fit and as far as the beard was concerned, there’s always a solution. What I hadn’t been aware of at the beginning: I was to be taught precise steps by a choreographer to match Sergei Prokofiev’s “Grandpa theme” in “Peter and the Wolf”! And for many years, “Peter and the Wolf” was the only piece by Prokofiev that I knew. That changed when I looked for a recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococco Variations”.

Yo-Yo Ma and the steps of grandpa

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have recorded that lovely piece along with Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125. The beginning of that symphony actually reminded me of “Peter and the Wolf”. The brass and the strings play a staccato that could well illustrate a grandfather’s heavy footsteps on the frozen Russian soil. And the piece itself could well be compared to a piece of permafrost. It’s tough stuff, a true challenge for the cellist. For a long time it was deemed unplayable.

Prokofiev wrote it in 1950/51; it is actually a revised version of his Cello Concerto Op. 58, written in the 30s. The composer had been trained in Czarist Russia and soon toured Europe and the United States. After the October Revolution he settled down in the US, but never felt much at ease there. He had arrived in September 1918 without any plans, he knew nobody and few had heard his name. Prokofiev’s style did not match the expectations of the US audience, accustomed to Rachmaninov, the other Russian émigré pianist-composer, and the Great Depression diminished Prokofiev’s hope for commissions considerably. In 1936 he returned home to a country he did not yet know: the Soviet Union.

Adapting to Soviet reality

“As a composer, Prokofiev was cautious and ready to adapt in the first years after his return”, says Oxford Music Online. He turned to genres favoured by official Soviet cultural policy, however at times he still fell short of the ideal of “socialist realism”. By 1950, when he started to work on the Sinfonia Concertante, he had gone through Stalin’s hell. Like Shostakovich he had been forced to confess “artistic errors”: formalism and atonality. His first wife had been arrested for treason and espionage and deported to a labour camp. His health was failing. He passed away on March 5, 1953, the same day Stalin died.

Oxford Music Online qualifies Op. 125 as colourless and simplistic, lacking any of the “lively nonconformity” of Prokofiev’s youth.  What an utter nonsense! All three movements hold a number of melodic surprises like two, three or four parallel melodic lines. Unconventional changes of tempi* create throughout the piece a lot of tension, each time harmonically resolved. An imaginative instrumentation translates into amazing swings of mood within the movements – from lyrical to dramatic, from majestic to martial. Finally, I think it is quite remarkable that a Soviet composer living in the turmoil of the early 50s found the strength to compose anything at all, let alone such a piece as the Sinfonia Concertante.

Finally there is the fact that Prokofiev wrote this work explicitly for the promising rising star Mstislav Rostropovich, his former student. Rostropovich was one of the few cellist mastering the difficult parts of the concerto right after the publication of the score. Colourless and simplistic? I think it is a fascinating work for both musicians and concertgoers. In 2013, the German cellist Daniel Müller-Schott said: “Rostropovich encouraged me to emphasize the symphonic element contained in the title of the piece. Any emotionalism, written so far for the cello, should be amplified.”

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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3 thoughts on “Melodic surprises in the shadow of Stalin”

  1. Imagine what a pressure for him to live under, returning to the Soviet Union during the time of Stalin’s purges. I tried the link to the music but I guess you have to buy access to hear even a bit of it.

    1. The link seems to wirk fine but you will need iTunes on your device (PC, Mac, smart phone) to play the sound files. Part of the music can be played without paying for it. 😄

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