Program Notes - February 6, 2010
Born on April 23, 1891 in Sontsovka, Ukraine
Died on March 5, 1953 in Moscow, Russia
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor
Like the Eighth Symphony of Shostakovich, played earlier this season, Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto makes for uncomfortable listening, plumbing the ugly depths of the soul with solo writing that borders on the inhuman in both its technical difficulty and its expressionist extremes. Though Prokofiev premiered the revised, definitive version of the concerto in Paris in 1924, between the World Wars, the original was premiered in St. Petersburg in September 1913, on the eve of the First World War and within months of the notorious Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The work was received with audience hostility and lukewarm critical appreciation at both premieres, which is understandable, given that the piece’s level of dissonance is less disturbing to our 21st century ears than the unspeakable horror it appears to be narrating. While celebrating the vitality and athleticism of his own pianism, Prokofiev produces the pianistic equivalent of James Cameron’s cyborg Terminator, a hungry, mechanized beast, both despotic leader and fugitive prey. Following his swaggering First Concerto, the composer expressed his wish to create something with less of a “soccer” quality; the suicide of his close pianist friend Max Shmitgoff during the work’s composition may also have contributed to its black mood. The concerto’s enduring value as a work of art, however, lies in its Brechtian honesty. It pulls human bodies into thrilling, industrious levels of virtuosity while expressing the despair inherent in society’s sacrifice to the capitalist, communist, and military machines of the twentieth century.
The first movement begins quietly, with the first of two haunting melodies that provide the work with its necessary element of human vulnerability. As the soloist develops the long, open-ended theme, the orchestra shifts to a contrasting texture built on jerky, mechanical textures typical of Prokofiev, leading to a piano cadenza that synthesizes and further develops all of the previous material with a frightening aggression. The climax conjures the return of the orchestra like some dark display of sorcery. A comparison with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto of 1909 (also a moody display of unprecedented virtuosity) becomes inevitable at this point, but the comparison is instructive in its contrasts: where Rachmaninoff’s impassioned cadenza blows away like a snow cloud to reveal a shimmering flute melody, Prokofiev brings in the low brass and thunderous strings to swallow the soloist with a diabolical sound only hinted at in the piano cadenza. Only after this scenario – the madness of one inflaming a multitude – does the energy subside into the resigned mood of the opening.
In place of a slow movement, the second and third movements provide a pair of intermezzos, the first of which is recognizable as a scherzo. Its perpetual motion in the solo part, chattering winds, snarling muted brass and meandering harmony give a sense of a headlong run through some nightmarish (urban?) forest with its unexpected twists and turns. The orchestra and soloist rally into a long crescendo but this too loses its way. The third movement, instead of providing repose or lyricism, confronts us with a trudging machine. The soloist decorates whimsically before joining the march; halfway through, his part becomes more expressive but soon reverts to balletic decoration of the march, which has become a harmonically circular ground bass. Again a crescendo begins to draw things together, but again its willpower falters.
Some influence of jazz and turn-of-the-century music hall is audible in the syncopations of the finale, which nevertheless preserves the demonic character of the other movements. Sparse chords introduce the second real melody in the work, folk-like, ardent, autumnal; it serves as a ground bass for intricate elaboration, like a late-blooming flower in a wasteland. Motor rhythms return with echoes of the melody in the brass as the harmony disintegrates into dissonance once more. The bassoon changes one crucial melody note to bring a hiatus and another doom-laden cadenza from the piano. This time the orchestra’s entry does not engulf the soloist but collaborates with him, in one more emotionally ambiguous crescendo; after this falters like the others, the jazzy syncopations of the opening return for a coda torn between industry and insanity.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia
Died on November 6, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 4 in F minor
Placed alongside Prokofiev’s Second Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, completed and premiered in 1878, highlights the difference between concepts of fate in the Russian Romantic and Modernist eras. For Prokofiev, as for Shostakovich, fate was a shared, concrete shift in reality that the very fabric of music must reflect; for Tchaikovsky, it was a personal demon that made its presence felt within a musical language still designed around the beauty of emotional expression. Just as Prokofiev’s Second Concerto displays the fate of society to a greater extent than any of his other works, Tchaikovsky dramatizes his fate-nemesis most explicitly in his Fourth Symphony, giving it the form of a seven-note rhythmic figure echoing the famous four-note one in Beethoven’s Fifth. This motive, rather than driving the music’s development in Beethovenian fashion, opens the symphony and then recurs at pivotal moments in the first and last movements. Tchaikovsky’s explanation of his concept of fate, solicited by the work’s patron Nadezhda von Meck, was “that fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness;” that sentence in itself encapsulates the Romantic ideas of individual selfhood, ambition, and denial that the World Wars to come would supplant with a very real sense of fragile collective humanity.
None of this hindsight, however, subtracts from the power of the symphony, which is one of the most dynamic, colorful explorations of the Romantic orchestra. Indeed it was audacious enough in form and content to bewilder most critics of the time, though they invariably recognized its “Russianness”, whether this was meant as a compliment or the opposite. The finale, despite its tenuous relationship to the other three movements, was the best-received movement, no doubt due to its impressive virtuosity and optimistic surface. Subsequently, critics have singled out the first movement as “one of the most towering structures in our whole symphonic literature” (Hans Keller, in 1966) and the symphony is one of the most frequently performed to this day.
The opening fate motive, despite its trumpet-like character, appears first on horns, the trumpets saved for an intensification of the motive a few bars later, when harmony is added. The transition to the principal theme of the movement is seamless, and the theme itself, in a syncopated compound triple time (three beats of three notes each, many falling off the beat), is one of the most rhythmically daring and sensual ever composed. This portentous skater’s waltz is counterbalanced by a cheerful, balletic second theme on the clarinet, but the fate motive and rhythmic ambiguities of the first theme dominate all of the subsequent climaxes. An important and increasingly prevalent texture in this movement is string tremolando; when the first theme climaxes for the last time, in the coda, the combination of this technique with the now familiar rhythmic syncopations and powerful brass has a shattering effect.
A plaintive oboe opens the second movement with simple pizzicato accompaniment, providing necessary breathing space after the first movement’s avalanche of ideas. Rhythms here are simpler on the surface, but Tchaikovsky continues to play with our sense of timing and phrase length. All the themes are derived from Russian folk tunes, and produce a central climax that recalls the passion of the first movement. The following scherzo is pizzicato throughout for the strings, with witty woodwind contributions and a brass march that anticipates Prokofiev’s style, not least in its surprising harmonic twists. This economy of texture, and separation of the main orchestral sections, neatly sets up the finale’s tour-de-force of full orchestral power, with Russian dances and string virtuosity maintaining the festive atmosphere until a final reappearance of the first movement’s brass motive. Rather than transforming the motive into something positive, though, as Beethoven does in the Fifth, Tchaikovsky simply ignores it, outruns it perhaps, pressing the orchestra to a fiery, amphetamine conclusion.
Symphony in C program notes are written by Tim Ribchester