Tag Archives: Sergei Prokofiev

The legacy of Prokofiev

Simon Morrison’s new book on Sergei Prokofiev’s Soviet years, which included the peak of his career and the end of his life, raises some fascinating points about this composer, things I wasn’t fully aware of.

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I’ve read The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years once through, and it’s my normal practice to read important nonfiction works such as this twice through before reviewing them. I’ll write a fuller review of the book in the near future, but for now there are some things I wanted to address sooner.

Perhaps the most important discovery Morrison offers is that Prokofiev had been promised he would be allowed to travel if he returned to the Soviet Union, and soon enough the Kremlin reneged. And even when they did allow him and his first wife, Lina, to travel, they did not allow their two sons to go with them, in effect holding them hostage to force the composer’s return. 

It had to be difficult for Prokofiev, of course, and it was even worse for Lina, who didn’t really want to return to Russia and would much have preferred to remain in Paris, where she was happy.  And after returning, Prokofiev ended up leaving her for the young Mira Mendelson (she’s seen in the photo below at left, with the composer), with whom he remained until the end of his life (he died, as has been noted many times for its ironic impact, on the very same day as Stalin: March 5, 1953).

prokov3Prokofiev also was at the peak of his creative powers when he went back to the Soviet Union, and while his life was shortened considerably by heart disease, it’s an open question whether he would have contributed a good deal more to music had he been able to write free of constant bureaucratic interference. One of the most interesting points that Morrison brings is up is that Prokofiev spent much of his time in the Soviet Union trying to write works for the stage: opera and ballet particularly, as well as some film scores, and these theatrical productions offered many more avenues for government meddlers to rework seemingly everything he wrote to reflect political concerns.

In the opera Semyon Kotko, for instance, the German villains in the work turned into Ukranian dissidents after the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. It’s the kind of thing opera composers always had to consider (Verdi’s Un Ballo reworked from Sweden to the United States, for instance), but it’s tragic that Prokofiev insisted on writing for the stage.

He must have felt deep down that the Soviets were not exactly admirable, but that he was Sergei Prokofiev, after all, and that he should have received better treatment at their hands. Surely he understood that years after his fateful return to his homeland, and understood better why Shostakovich avoided writing opera after the 1936 Pravda attack on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

It seems most likely that had Prokofiev chosen to stay away from his Russian captors, he probably would have made his way to that little colony of Russian and European exiles in Southern California. Morrison writes of how badly Walt Disney and other Hollywood producers wanted him to write scores for them, and Prokofiev loved some of the B melodramas Tinseltown was then turning out. 

It’s a dreadful story, to watch Prokofiev keep slamming up against the bureaucratic wall and to see him waste his time on things like his cantata for the 20th anniversary of the Revolution. But he doubtless felt he could work within in the system and carve out a place for himself in the Russian arts commensurate with his fame, not realizing what a micromanager Stalin was and how determined he was to have the expression of his country’s artists conform with his conception of the state.

For me, Shostakovich is the greatest of 20th-century Russian composers, but Prokofiev is a close second (Stravinsky is a special case, at least for me). And Prokofiev was a superior melodist whose unusual tunes are uniquely, colorfully his. I find myself enjoying his chamber music more than anything else these days, even the late cello sonata, and listening frequently to his First String Quartet and the two violin sonatas, particularly No. 2 in D, reworked from the Flute Sonata, which opens with one of Prokofiev’s most beautiful melodies, belying the stresses of its mid-war composition in 1942.

I’m not sure what the eventual place of Prokofiev will be in the canon, but surely some of his best music will survive, including the ballet scores for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, and he remains a frequently played composer.

He survived in the Soviet Union unlike many other artists because he was too famous to send to the gulag, but his sad story is nevertheless testimony to the power of the creative spirit, even in the face of obstruction, poor health and repression.

Does the piano sonata still have something to say?

Thursday I played through two 20th-century piano sonatas, in part because I’m writing one of my own, and lest anyone get the wrong idea of what “played through” means, I should say at the outset that I mean hunt, peck, hack and fumble.

But the two sonatas in question — the Second Sonata (in A, Op. 21) of Karol Szymanowski, and the Ninth Sonata (in C, Op. 103) of Sergei Prokofiev — got me wondering about the notion of sonatas in general, how it is that works like these are heard by their audiences, and whether sonatas as defined like other long, initially sonata-form works such as string quartets and symphonies, can ever be written the same way again.

Both pieces are quite different in some respects; I played these two for a simple reason: the Szymanowski (pictured at left), written in 1911, was sitting on my piano, and the Prokofiev because I am reading Simon Morrison’s upcoming book on Prokofiev’s Soviet years, which devotes some space to the Ninth, which dates from 1947. Both are difficult, but the Szymanowski is much harder than the Prokofiev, at least for me (partly because of its almost unrelievedly thick texture).

The concept of a sonata as a multi-movement work in which a composer would pour out his or her deepest feelings or most daring ideas might have morphed a bit in the past few years. I don’t know of a great many contemporary piano sonatas (though Nikolai Kapustin is having some success with his jazzy pieces) that would be thought of in the same way as the Prokofiev sonatas, particularly the War Sonatas of the 1940s.

I’m reminded here of Vladimir Horowitz in conversation with David Dubal (this is from Evenings With Horowitz):

The Seventh and Eighth Sonatas I played at the Russian consulate during the war. Many musicians came to the consulate. They all wanted to hear the new sonatas. In the first rows were Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Toscanini, the young Bernstein, all the critics, and many American composers like Barber and Copland.

I’m not sure what sonatas would bring all the critics and top musicians to a recital today. These days, a new concerto, a new symphony or symphonic work, and especially a new opera: Those are the works that get the attention today,. and here we have something akin to what’s happened to movies in recent years. Spectacle appears to be more important today than substance (though if you can get spectacle and substance together, you’ve really got something).

The point is that the sonata as it first arrived in late Mozart and Haydn is a work of profundity and intimacy at the same time. You can thunder away all you wish, but it still comes down to one person with two hands at a piano. A certain kind of composer has always cherished the idea of a big sonata to sketch broader ideas and offer listeners a wide swath of emotional territory, and since the late 18th century and the rise of the piano itself the solo sonata has been a benchmark for compositional aspiration.

It could be that because the piano has largely been eclipsed as a home music-maker since the advent of recorded music, the idea of going to a piano recital and listening deeply and intently to a long, serious composition is not something audiences want to do anymore, with the exception of major, flashy names playing the most tried-and-true, familiar sonatas.

I still think there’s something to be said in this old form, just as there is in the novel and the short story, and really, any sort of established artistic endeavor. You don’t hear a whole lot these days about new piano sonatas, but I don’t think that means the form has exhausted itself.

I will always turn to a sonata when I want to investigate a composer’s deepest thoughts, and I think the same holds true for writing one. You want to give the player and your audience your freshest and best stuff; if it’s immediately entertaining as well, that’s marvelous. But not being immediately accessible shouldn’t keep new pieces from being written in this form, or prevent pianists from seeking them out.

Here’s Marc-Andre Hamelin in the Szymanowski Second Sonata (there are two subsequent videos):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fc68CJbAtGg&hl=en&fs=1]

And this is Sviatoslav Richter in the Prokofiev Ninth Sonata. I think this is the April 1951 first performance. Prokofiev was too ill to attend the recital, but listened in by telephone, Morrison says (there are two subsequent videos here, too):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ak0Pbn_ru7w&hl=en&fs=1]

Kapell’s Australian concerts

Listening this week to the new discs of the short-lived American pianist William Kapell, taken from broadcasts over the air in 1953 as he toured Australia. He was killed that October when his plane coming back from Down Under slammed into a mountain near San Francisco.

He was just 31 years old, and on the verge of what in all likelihood would have been a major career. Although American composers were fond of him for pursuing fresh repertoire, the selections on these two RCA Red Seal discs (called Kapell reDiscovered) essentially are canonical works; the newest piece on the programs is the Seventh Sonata of Prokofiev, written over the period 1939-42. The composer had died earlier in 1953, but still the piece is the closest thing to a contemporary composition.

What one hears on these records is a pianist with a strong personality, a musician at that phase of his career in which the music becomes an outgrowth of his own personal expression, as if he had composed it himself.

In the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance, the first few promenade sections are intensely intimate, while in Bydlo, Kapell plays with brute force, snapping off the melody and its grinding accompaniment, and then does a marvelous fadeout as the ox-cart disappears into the distance, the dynamic level getting softer and softer until it is lost from view.

The Mussorgsky is on the first of this collection’s two discs, included with a gentle, clear-lined Bach A minor Suite (BWV 818) and the Rachmaninov Third Concerto, with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra under Sir Bernard Heinze. It’s a good performance of the Rachmaninov, too, with plenty of fireworks, fast fingers, and lyricism.

These performances were recorded off the air by a department store salesman named Roy Preston, who saved them onto acetate discs, and that creates two problems: One is that a short section of the Rachmaninov third movement was lost as the disc ran out of room and Preston had to turn it over.

The engineers here have patched it with an earlier recording of Kapell playing the same work, and the patch is quite obvious. They did the same thing in two other instances: the first movement of the Bach was not recorded, so a recital version was subbed, and the final bars of the Mussorgsky weren’t broadcast, so another recital version has been stitched in.

In all these cases, the difference in the sources can clearly be heard, and there’s been no attempt to go through and eliminate the large amount of surface noise and dynamic distortion present on the original acetate discs. Listening to it, especially in louder portions of the music, can be irritating, but it’s worth enduring these two difficulties to hear this pianist in his final appearances.

Still, I wouldn’t oppose a remastering — not to eliminate mistakes (there aren’t many), but to clear up the noise, which can be considerable.

The second of the two discs features the Prokofiev sonata, a late sonata by Mozart (in B-flat, K. 570), the Suite Bergamasque of Debussy and three works by Chopin: the Barcarolle, the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, and the First Scherzo.

The scherzo sticks out for its blistering speed — if Chopin wants Presto, that’s what I’ll give him, Kapell seems to say. But it’s a little too fast, and it sounds rushed and muddy. The pulse of the piece gets lost in the opening bars, and the closing bars of the first section sound tacked on rather than a product of the same narrative line.

The Prokofiev sonata, on the other hand, is well-suited for Kapell; he knows how much to make of the composer’s mix of tunefulness and grotesquerie, and he makes a good case for the work The first movement is slightly on the galumphy side, but it has a nice impishness that translates well through the old sound technology.

Although the sound isn’t ideal on these Australian recordings, it’s wonderful that they were in good enough shape to offer a window into the last days of a fine pianist who clearly had talent and ambition to burn, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the chance to realize it.

Here’s a video offered up on the Kapell Website of a 10-minute recital by the pianist, apparently for an old Omnibus program hosted by Alistair Cooke. Kapell plays Scarlatti (the E major sonata, L. 23), a favorite of Horowitz, who played it on his Moscow recital in 1986; Kapell makes a lot of the imitation-guitar chords he hears in the piece, while Horowitz’s performance is much more intimate. Both good performances, both with lots of personality.

Also on this video are the Chopin nocturne Kapell played in Australia, and a flashy arrangement of an Argentine folksong.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IB_uUqP8iY&hl=en&fs=1]