Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sergei Prokofiev - Flute Concerto - Overture on Hebrew Themes - Sonata for Unaccompanied Violins in Unison - Scherzo for 4 Bassoons - Classical Symphony - London Musici, Mark Stephenson - Jonathan Snowden, Flute - Conifer Classics 1991

Here's another disc from one of my 'Prokofiev boxes', and this time it's one of my favorite Prokofiev recordings of all time. The past three years aside, this delightful Conifer Classics gem has been a constant companion for many years, and it still excites to this day, joyously fresh with each listen. 
It's a rather obscure program, even the already lesser-known "Overture on Hebrew Themes" is here performed in its still lesser-known symphonic version, which I much prefer. It is simple yet luxuriant at the same time; here we are not just dancing with a passing group of klezmorim but rather taking in the sights and sounds of an old-world Ukranian shtetl, with enough aural atmosphere to practically summon its own storytelling (perhaps Peter and a certain bloodthirsty wolf are just a thicket and pond away from this squished, little rustic village). That we get Symphony No. 1 hardly matters here; the reading is pleasant enough but that is about it, it doesn't stand out nor does it offer the sparkling homage to classicism that makes the "Classical Symphony" otherwise so very irresistible. It's cheerful but not exuberant. Perhaps some or many of you will disagree....or perhaps I just have too many recordings of the Classical Symphony! In any event, the "main courses" are in fact the other pieces, including the Overture on Hebrew Themes.

The original "Overture on Hebrew Themes" Op. 34 was composed in 1919 while Prokofiev was in New York and scored for piano, clarinet, and string quartet. It was first performed in New York in 1920 and then published in 1922. As Op. 34b (symphonic version) it was 'written' in 1934 and first performed in Moscow that same year, and finally published the next year, 1935. In it's symphonic guise it is perhaps less 'tart', but the Hadyn-like orchestra used for the Classical Symphony (bass drum substituting timpani, the piano now serving as a constituent member of the ensemble rather than as soloist) is here employed and the lyrical and romantic qualities of the music are most attractively enhanced. 

In 1919 refugees from Bolshevik Russia were flooding in to New York City, and among them the members of "Zimro", an ensemble of Jewish musicians, most of whom had been contemporaries of Prokofiev at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. They gave Prokofiev a collection of Jewish folk melodies, asking him to select some and write a piece for the sextet. The young Sergei took but one and one half days to write the music, and at first had no plans to even give the work an opus number.  

During the summer of 1941 the Germans invaded Russia, and Prokofiev, together with a number of other prominent Soviet artists, was evacuated from Moscow to areas remote from the fighting-first to Nalchik in the Northern Caucasus, to Tblisi, the capital of Georgia; then to Alma-Ata and finally to Perm in the Urals. The amount of work Prokofiev accomplished during these unsettling years was prodigious-the opera "War and Peace", the Second String Quartet, the Piano Sonata No. 7, the "Ballad of a Boy who Remained Unknown" (Russia's 'Child of our Time'), the ballet "Cinderella" and much else. In certain cases contemporary events and the spirit of the age fired his imagination; in others he seems merely to be discharging his duty as an official Soviet composer. A work such as the "Sonata for Flute and Piano" is, however, devoid of political, idealogical or epic connotations; it is "pure" music. It allowed the composer, one imagines anyhow- some relief and respite from the many political, personal and professional pressures weighing him down at the time. Perhaps it also reflects something of the unaccustomed beauty of his Central Asiatic surroundings. The Flute Sonata was begun in 1942 in Alma-Ata and completed in Perm the following summer. Sviatoslav Richter played the piano at the first performance in Moscow in 1944, and shortly after the composer made a version for violin and piano in a collaboration with David Oistrakh. 

The "Sonata for Flute and Piano", which has been popular since it's introduction, has been well described by Soviet biographer Israel Nestyev as "the sunniest and most serene of Prokofiev's wartime compositions". It has the simplicity, lucidity and melodic spontaneity common to the Classical Symphony, the Violin Concerto No. 1, "Cinderella" and the "Music for Children". Its classical temper may perhaps be related to Prokofiev's admiration for the "heavenly sound" of the French Flautist Georges Barrère; for those qualities we generally designate as "classical" have always been characteristic of the greatest French art. The "Concerto for Flute and Orchestra" is the Sonata for Flute and Piano in D,  Op. 94 as orchestrated, brilliantly so imo, by Christopher Palmer. The orchestra used is small: no flutes, one oboe, one cor anglais, two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, one trumpet, timpani and percussion, harp, piano and reduced strings. The first performance took place on February 5th 1988, at Royal Festival Hall, London, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes, Jonathan Snowden the flute soloist. (Snowden is the soloist on this recording as well)

The first movement is typically classical in its emotional restraint, clarity of texture and ordered symmetry of design. None of the rules of classical first-movement sonata procedure is disobeyed; the exposition is played twice and even the statutory key relationships are observed. The second movement is a fast-moving but good-tempered scherzo (no trace here of the biting Prokofievian sarcasm); it is based on two themes (the second has the character of a fast waltz) and is bisected by a reflective episode which re-establishes the fundamental tonality of the Sonata, D major. The third movement begins in a vein of neo-Mozartian simplicity, but pastel colors soon predominate over the blacks-and-whites. The mood is nocturnal and poetic, and persists for a while even after the return of the 'Mozartian' music. The finale belongs to the world of the Classical Symphony and "The Love for Three Oranges"; Prokofievian wit and humor are in evidence throughout, especially in the second theme which seems to poke fun at an old-fashioned system of piano exercises. Apart from a sequestered interlude in F major which rises to some heights of eloquence, nothing checks the impetuous onrush of high spirits, and the ending of the imminent Fifth Symphony is foreshadowed  in the measured ebullience of the closing pages. In orchestrated form the already wonderful Flute Sonata is just so very lovely..

Prokofiev's "Sonata for Unaccompanied Violins in Unison", Op. 115 is an unusual piece, and one that I am very fond of. To this day it is the only work of its kind in musical literature. According to Israel Nestyev, it was prompted "by the practice of groups of Soviet violinists playing in unison certain works of Bach, Handel and other composers. Such ensembles of twenty to thirty young artists often performed at social concerts given on festive occasions at the Bolshoi Theatre. From this Prokofiev derived the idea of writing a contemporary Society piece for violins played in unison".

Young violin students of the former USSR, playing in unison, 1947

This is the world premiere recording of the actual sonata - in the form the composer intended, i.e. by an ensemble of violinists. Generally it is played as a solo sonata, by one player, in which form it sounds ineffective. Hardly one would expect the solo part of the Brahms Violin Concerto to sound 'effective' when performed by an ensemble of 22 players; so why, conversely, give a sonata expressly written for 22 players to one solo player to perform? The Op. 115 Sonata is, for a start, much less demanding technically than a real solo sonata would be; the composer was writing not for a virtuoso but for a group of players whose level of technical accomplishment would have varied considerably. There is, therefore, more emphasis on line, on melody, than on bravura display and special effects of multiple stopping, harmonics and the rest. The piece is brilliantly conceived, its luster of sound unique. Not unlike the Sonata for Flute and Piano/Concerto or again Symphony No. 1, the Sonata for Unaccompanied Violins in Unison is in D major and is neoclassical in stance. It is in three movements: I. Moderato (in first movement sonata form); II. Andante dolce (theme and variations); III. Con brio (unusual but clear-cut in form):  a)D major section (two themes, the first alls mazurka); b) D minor section (Allegro precipitato); c) Recapitulation of D major section "a"; and finally,  d) Recapitulation of "b" but in the major. 

"Scherzo for 4 Bassoons" Op. 12-bis

Well what can one say after all...or rather after hearing the Scherzo?? I can say that I am still puzzled (happily so, however) to this day every time I listen to the Op. 12.
And back to "Peter and the Wolf"....perhaps these are the dancing hippos that Prokofiev decided to leave out of the work, or hogs scuttling about? It's comical. It's strange. Only a Russian could have written a burlesque like this-no wonder Gorky liked it (he heard it during the course of a literary/musical/artistic soirée in the Petrograd of 1917-Jascha Heifetz, then still in Russia, also performed-and thereafter became a warm admirer of and friend to the composer). The Scherzo is actually the same piece as No. 9 of the "Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12. These date from 1906-13, the scherzo from 1912; so it is not known whether the bassoon or piano version came first. In 1954, after Prokofiev's death, the Bolshoi included it in the ballet "The Stone Flower" (incidentally there's a nice old Chandos disc with excerpts, very well performed, however even better is a 2-disc set on CPO of the entire ballet) under the utterly appropriate title of "Dance of the Ram and the Goat". You'd think they could have thrown in a hippo. Sheeesh.

Track listing:

1)Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34b  (8:52)

Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Sonata in D, Op. 94, orchestrated by Christopher Palmer)

2)Moderato (8:12)
3)Scherzo (4:58)
4)Andante (4:08)
5)Allegro con bro (6:24)

Symphony No. 1 "Classical", Op. 25

6)Allegro (4:36)
7)Larghetto (4:26)
8)Gavotta (1:27)
9)Finale (4:05)

Sonata for Unaccompanied Violins in Unison, Op. 115

10)Moderato (4:47)
11)Andante dolce (Theme and Variations) (3:42)
12)Con brio (5:28)

13)Scherzo for Four Bassoons, Op. 12-bis (2:41)

Enjoy the rare Sergey/Sergei/Sergej!!



Marcelo Lasta said...

Espectacular,fulminante FLUTE CONCERTO y la Sonata para violines unisono,dos opus inéditos,suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper Tzadik,un great,a grato abrazo of your friend of pampas infinitas,Doktor Tapirman.

Toon van Dijk said...

I didn't know Prokofiev wrote a flute concerto, so this is very interesting.
Many thanks and regards from The Netherlands.
Veel dank en groeten uit Nederland.

Anonymous said...

dear tz this is AMAZING-thank you very much! -I do actually like the way the Classical Symphony is played too-so, I do disagree with you-this one time :-)


Tzadik said...

Sí doctor T es un disco espectacular! Feliz usted está de acuerdo: D Es uno de mis favoritos de todos los tiempos, la sonata jugó como un concierto es simplemente exquisita, y la sonata para violines al unísono también es una de mis piezas -muchas Prokofiev favoritos fanáticos de Sergei seguramente nunca han escuchado antes ..

su hombre en los estados,


Tzadik said...

Halo Toon, you are welcome friend. The concerto is the orchestration of the Flute Sonata, but it's brilliant in this form, I prefer it much of the time!



Tzadik said...

Hi Jaime, thx for commenting. So nice to hear people like this disc as much as I do :) OK-the symphony is played well, I can agree to that...and I can agree that we disagree about how "well" it is played!


sazor said...


Anonymous said...

I hope things are improving for you.
When you can get around to it, I would appreciate your re-upping this Prokofiev collection. The Overture on Hebrew Themes is a long-time love of mine, and I've never heard some of this other works.
Best wishes.
Phillp in Canada