It might surprise you to learn that Prokofiev is big business right now! So much so that the forthcoming Robbie Williams single, Party Like A Russian, credits the composer as its inspiration.
It is assumed the source material will be Dance of the Knights, from Romeo and Juliet (otherwise known as The Apprentice theme tune!) but hopefully it will lead to an increase in curiosity around the composer and his music.
With unexpectedly impeccable timing, all seven of Prokofiev’s symphonies are being performed at the Cadogan Hall this week, with the best possible combination of conductor and orchestra. Valery Gergiev (above) has been leading celebrations in Russia of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and for three nights he has welded together a program of the symphonies, the two violin concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra.
A bruising first-night encounter boldly included the Second and Third symphonies, their sheer volume fairly peeling a layer off the ceiling of the hall. Both works are from the 1920s, when, like many composers, Prokofiev was intent on making as much noise as possible, working his ideas in a mechanical fashion with little room for warmth or respite.
Aggression coursed through the Symphony no.2 (1924-25), the piercing brass and biting string lines cutting through the dry acoustic and making a powerful impact. There were brief moments of respite, but even then – such as the first movement’s thump of double basses and bassoons – these were a change in colour rather than mood.
The second movement broadened its scope however, and the soaring tune Prokofiev gives to the violins offered a graceful if cold alternative. The piece is rarely heard in public and it was easy to see why, for its lopsided form and constant attack make it a challenging listen even today – but few could deny its impact.
Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.2.
The Symphony no.3 (1928) is cut from similar cloth, but has a greater dramatic impulse. This is due to its operatic origins, with much of the source material drawn from Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel. Once again the Mariinsky orchestra were superb, but the violins were sensational in their precision, playing their melodies from on high with searing intensity.
The machine of the first movement ground into action but there was deep seated passion here too, and the swooning violins took over the second movement with some weird yet rather sensual portamenti. The third movement packed a punch and led to another bruising but utterly thrilling last movement climax, where Gergiev cajoled every sinew of his orchestra to contribute. Wind and brass – especially bassoons, trumpet and horn – were all at the peak of their form.
Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.3.
Some contrast to all this bombast was welcome in the form of Prokofiev’s Symphony no.1 (‘Classical’) (1916-17). Exquisitely crafted, it is one of his best loved pieces, with not a note out of place as it completes a wonderful modern pastiche of a Haydn symphony. Often Prokofiev’s tunes feel like they have included bags of wrong notes, but they are all so memorable – and with some well-chosen speeds Gergiev brought out the invention if not quite all of the charm.
Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Classical Symphony.
The Violin Concerto no.1 (1917-23) was equally soothing in comparison to its neighbours, and Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti played with assurance, charm and a frisson of attitude when the going got faster. It was the more delicate music that made this performance memorable, however, with some lovely sonorities from the orchestra as together with the violinist they painted a bright, wintry landscape.
With a generous and challenging concert lasting more than two and a half hours you would think an encore would be far from Gergiev’s mind, but no – we were in for a final treat courtesy of Liadov’s shimmering symphonic poem The Enchanted Lake. It was a soothing come down from the emotional highs and lows of the symphonies – and only heightened the expectations for the second and third parts of this so-far exhilarating voyage.