Friday, August 7, 2015

Sergei Prokofiev - String Quartet No. 1 - String Quartet No. 2 "Kabardinian" - Cello Sonata - Aurora String Quartet - Michael Grebanier, Cello - Janet Guggenheim, Piano - Naxos 1994

Hello and good weekend to everyone. This hectic week was finally balanced for me when I inadvertently located a couple of my long m.i.a. boxes of Prokofiev recordings. This is a real joy for me, especially as 90% of my Sergei P. collection has been stored away for over three years now-I suppose I "survived" this musical fasting thanks to fellow bloggers and the 10 or so Prokofiev discs that managed to move with me to this apartment three years back. Indeed, Prokofiev was my first love and I likely have more Prokofiev discs than that of any other composer. It was my early (teen-age years) exposure to the "Lieutenant Kije" Suite, "The Love for Three Oranges" and the "Classical Symphony" (No. 1) in particular that sparked my interest in classical music; my father has always loved Prokofiev and he had a cassette and vinyl collection that was in general impressive/borderline obsessive and crazy (he already had over 12,000 records in our basement when I was a kid, not to mention around 3,000 cassettes). Could it be genetics?? ;)

So, Sergei Sergeyevich was my gateway drug. I cannot imagine a better introduction.

Prokofiev's chamber music has been making an impact in the recital room over the last decade especially and yet remains curiously under-represented on disc given the ubiquity of a certain Soviet Russian contemporary. (The older composer would have been vexed indeed!) His two quartets for strings are small masterpieces and thus perfect examples. There are good recordings out there (the American Quartet in particular) to explore, however considering the quality of the music I still consider it slim-pickings. This Naxos disc with the Aurora String Quartet was my first (digital) introduction to these great works, and although the recording session is somewhat "cavernous" it still remains my first choice, with the "American" and "Russian" Quartets being second choices. Somehow I have never really enjoyed the Emerson Quartet's readings; all around it's just not an energetic or inspired affair to these ears.

The strenuously wrought String Quartet No. 1 is a pre-Soviet score and hence formally heretical as well as rather more advanced than the second quartet harmonically. Prokofiev plunged into writing this quartet in 1930 during his first sojourn in America on the basis of a commission from the Library of Congress in Washington DC-that this was during a time when the bulk of the Library's commissions went out to blues musicians like Son House and Leadbelly and Appalachian and backwater folk music-might now strike us as novel. Why would a foremost Russian composer, once immune to criticism, increasingly galled by critical riposte and sensitive to jibes, commit to such a project, however worthy? The answer is...let's just be happy he did :) The "classically" sounding work blends the easily distinguishable inspiration by Beethoven's quartets and the typically Prokofievian pungency and lyricism.  The sonata form Allegro is spare yet sweet, with an emphasis on development; it concludes abruptly. Marked "tranquillo," the fourteen bars of Andante molto serve multiple purposes including as a contrast to the first movement and as both introduction to, and thematic germ for, the scherzo-like "Vivace" that follows. After the sometimes Bartokian vehemence of the Vivace element at its core, the work winds down to end slowly on a note of sustained expressive intensity. The concluding Andante, much admired by Myaskovsky and subsequently transcribed for string orchestra, was considered by the composer to be among the best single movements he ever wrote: "I ended the quartet with a slow movement because the material happened to be the most significant in the whole piece." The lyrical theme sounds first in the viola as the music gradually unfolds toward its ambiguous final notes. Prokofiev also arranged the Andante movement for piano as the fifth of his "Six Pieces", Op. 52. 

Based, like Myaskovsky’s 23rd Symphony, on ideologically vetted Kabardinian folk materials, Prokofiev’s  String Quartet No. 2 (sometimes referred to as "The Karbardinian Quartet") is one of the most immediately attractive quartets in the repertoire. It dates from 1941 when the two men were evacuated to the relative stability of the Caucasus and points east (that Prokofiev's young companion Mira Mendelson was in tow might explain the jollity of the outer movements although their music can be tough as well as witty) In the wondrous Adagio the cello line rises high, ghostly melodic statements in octaves can expose the smallest tuning difficulties and pizzicati needs must sparkle like ice. The aggressive principal theme of the first movement originates in a Kalbardian folk song. Its unrelenting intensity prevails until the three lower voices start a repeated two-note back and forth figure over which the first violin intones an expressive dance tune. The concluding, more lyrical theme of the exposition lightens the mood somewhat before the harshly brilliant development section takes over. A shortened recapitulation ends the movement. After a few introductory measures, the cello is entrusted with the Adagio's serene and beautiful opening melody which is taken from another Kalbardian song. The Oriental character of the area's folk music is evoked in the middle section as Prokofiev successfully imitates a Caucasian stringed instrument, the kjamantchi. Unique tonal effects in this movement include the viola playing a tremolo pontichello. The movement is brought to a close with a brief return to the opening theme. "Getigezhev Ogurbi", a vigorous mountain dance, is the basis for the opening of the allegro. The viola and cello start a fast, agitated passage that becomes the accompaniment to a restlessly lyrical violin melody. A reminder of the opening is followed by a slightly slower, more relaxed episode before the tempo picks up again in a variation of the initial theme. A cadenza for the cello leads to an agitated development siction, after which there is a return, but in reverse order, of the previous tunes.

Prokofiev composed his Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the first performance in 1950, with Richter, no less, at the piano. The pianist tells the story of playing it to two different judging panels, apparently for authorization to give the work in public. I wonder if present-day artists in the free world can really imagine what it is like to work under such conditions. There was perhaps relatively little official opposition to this sonata, as it is a predominantly lyrical work, with none of the harmonic daring associated with the younger composer. The first impression the work gives is a carefree one, but subsequent listening reveals much more. The work is beautifully written for the two instruments; the composer clearly wanted to exploit the cellist's sound in the low register. The first movement is a fine example of Prokofiev's gift for melody, with an amusing passage where the two instruments imitate each other, and a poignant, chiming close. Even the wittily ironic second movement scherzo has a more lyrical interlude and the energetic finale has a surprisingly dramatic finish. 




Johannes R. Becher said...


I'm lucky enough to own the Pavel Haas version of these two string quartets and tt's surprising to see how the Supraphon's liner notes say more or less the same that Naxos'.

The do not belong in my top 5 of string quartets, but I find they're quite nice and valuable.

Tzadik said...

Johannes I have been wanting to hear the Pavel Haas Qt disc! I have heard good things about it, although I also have read a couple reviews mentioning the sound, that it was "thin"...that I don't really know, Supraphon can do no wrong in my eyes/ears. I have enough older (AAD) Supraphon discs that sound pretty good considering...perhaps the sound is not thin but rather the earwax of certain reviewers is thick. An unpleasant thing to say/write, now that I think of it, about wax..

All I know is recordings and recording sessions are like snowflakes!


Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Tzadik, thank you for the post. although these quartets have never convinced me, it's good to return to them. i prefer the ones by martinu. btw, which are your favorite 20th century string quartets?

Tzadik said...

Well...I'm going to have to get back to you concerning my favorite quartets, I have to run to work and
there's too many worthy pieces to list! I will try to reply again tonight :)