Five marginally-connected thoughts on Sergei Prokofiev

If this wasn't an ill-conceived press photo at the time it was taken, it surely set the stage for those that came generations later.

If this wasn’t an ill-conceived press photo at the time it was taken, it surely set the stage for those that came generations later.

On Saturday night the first words out of my mouth after the final note of the excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s epic ballet Romeo and Juliet had sounded were “Jesus Christ.” Guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto had led our fine local band through a concert that was, to me, a tale of two halves. The opening half was OK – a decent performance of Silvestre Revueltas’ Redes suite and a pleasant though perhaps character-deficient reading of the beautiful Concierto de Aranjuez – but the return from intermission brought with it a deadly combination of music and players that were made for each other. Prieto’s conducting was straightforward and wonderfully uncomplicated, the band’s greatest strengths were highlighted, and, most importantly, Prokofiev is really good at music.

It’s that last one that got me thinking as the rest of the weekend wore on. It had been awhile since I had listened to Prokofiev, and it had been even longer since I had heard his music in concert (in fact, it was probably the concert here a few years ago when Gil Shaham played the second concerto). As I was reminded of just how much of a bad ass he is, I thought it might be appropriate to share the five recurring thoughts that have been kicking around the infinite void that is my brain.

1) The only composer who can challenge Prokofiev’s ability to play with our sense of tonality is Haydn

Obviously all of the greatest composers have mastered tonality and how to manipulate it, whether it’s Wagner’s enharmonic modulations or the first movement of Mahler 7, but Prokofiev shares with Haydn that rare ability to somehow make everything sound so simple yet just off-kilter enough to make you go “I wonder what that would look like under the microscope of a harmonic analysis.” You combine these harmonies with liberal use of color notes and a massively underrated ability to craft a melody, and you realize why Prokofiev is as popular as he is. And then you remember that he’s not as popular as his contemporary (Shostakovich) and the comparison to Haydn finds a completely arbitrary and needless endpoint! And then you remember that I didn’t even mention the Classical Symphony, which was written in the style which Haydn would have composed had he been alive in 1917 according to the guy who actually wrote the thing!

2) Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet defeats every other Romeo and Juliet, and probably every other thing about star-crossed lovers that isn’t Tristan for that matter

With no apologies to Tchaikovsky, Berlioz (OK, a quick apology to Berlioz), Gounod, Bellini, and Delius, Prokofiev’s score easily laps the field. I’ll even throw Bernstein on that list to include the play’s most famous adaptation. I’m not sure it can complete with Tristan, but I’m not so sure that any work of art ever done by a human being that isn’t Tristan can complete with Tristan. Regardless, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is undeniably the shit and I’m pretty sure that somewhere Bill Shakespeare is nodding his approval.

3) I wonder what social media would have been like on the day that Prokofiev (and that other guy who died the same day) died

I love Twitter and the internet and Craiglist bangs and furry porn and writing this blog as much as we all do, but social media and the 24-hour news cycle and all that shit is, let’s face it, one of the worst things human beings ever did to themselves that didn’t involve weapons of war or racism/sexism/classism. And yet I think that had this God-forsaken hellscape of an information age existed on 5 May 1953 we’d have at least heard a little something about one of the great artists of their day dying. Prokofiev’s death was obscured by that of Joseph Stalin in ways that are almost incomprehensible to us today. To carry it forward to the now-times, what would happen if, say, Barack Obama (the current leader) and Aretha Franklin (a well-respected musician with a long and distinguished career) died? I don’t know the answer, but that won’t stop me from thinking about it an unnecessary amount of time.

4) There’s a lot of music out there that rocks pretty fucking hard, but the end of the “Death of Tybalt” rocks the pretty fucking hardest

Chunk, ch-ch-ch-ch chunk, ch chunk, ch chunk, ch-ch-ch-ch-chunk, ch-chunk, ch-chunk. That shit would make John Bonham proud.

5) Why don’t I know more Prokofiev than I do?

What I know very well: the Classical, Alexander Nevsky, Romeo and Juliet Suites, Peter and the Wolf, The Meeting of the Volga and the Don

What I know pretty well: the Fifth, Lieutenant Kije Suite, Love for Three Oranges Suite, the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos

What I barely know: the Sinfonia Concertante, the 2nd Violin Concerto, Scythian Suite, Ivan the Terrible, Cinderella

I have no idea how this could have happened, but help. Particular works, performances, whatever that I should know and don’t, say so below. Because the more you know, you know? Sharing is caring. This is your brain on drugs. I learned it by watching you.     



9 thoughts on “Five marginally-connected thoughts on Sergei Prokofiev

  1. Check out the quintet op. 39 for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and bass. Also the 2nd piano concerto is one of the most badass works for that combination around.

  2. Ok, you must know the 1st piano concerto, seriously. That 3 concertos are a MUST in an audiophile repertoire, seriously (I don’t mean that the 4th and the 5th are prescindible, but what the hell, there’s no comparison). I should mention too the Overture on Hebrew Themes, a really so exciting chamber piece for string quartet, clarinet and piano (look for that accelerando!) and so many chamber pieces, specially the violin sonata op. 94a (originally for flute, but IMHO so better on a good violin). Finally, I must recommend you to listen to some piano pieces: that’s another universe to discover. War sonatas (6th, 7th and 8th, 7th, 7th, 7th, 7th…!) and Toccata op.11 are essential.
    And I’ll shut up now, I don’t want to hoard all the recommendations!

  3. Hear that fucking movement. It’s a kickass.

  4. You should know all five piano concertos plus the War Sonatas (piano sonatas 6-8). I have recordings of all these pieces by Yefim Bronfman and they are fine. Cliburn and the previously mentioned Argerich are also good in this repertoire. No one has specifically mentioned the 4th piano concerto yet, but it is for left hand only, written for the same one-armed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother!), who commissioned Ravel’s celebrated piano concerto for the left hand. Knowing that Wittgenstein never played Prokofiev’s 4th piano concerto because “he didn’t understand it” should whet your appetite for listening to it.

  5. As it has been mentioned above the first piano concerto is wonderful. Youthful exuberance and cockiness as well as fantastic tunes. It is quite a delightful ride in the hands of a competent pianist.

  6. I just have to say: I love this blog! that is all.

  7. I heartily recommend getting to know Cinderella a lot better. (Ashkenazy’s version is my favourite.) It’s Romeo and Juliet‘s enthusiastic younger cousin.

  8. Just came across your page. I like!

    Only recently started paying attention to Prokofiev myself, but have been listening to the Weller set of symphonies (favourite one I’ve found on Spotify so far) – 2 and 3 are especially fabulous <3

  9. Blow your brains out with the end of Symphony #6. Best done with a live Sanderling Rotterdam recording, but Mravinsky or Rostropovich will do!

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