Sinfonia Concertante (1952)


Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante is a true musical hybrid. In addition to its bipartite name, it represents not only the melding of two periods of its composer’s creative life, but also the alliance of two of Russia’s greatest musical minds.  For the fifteen years after 1918, Prokofiev lived in the West, mostly in France, gaining a reputation as one of music’s most brilliant avante-garde composers.  For reasons never fully explained-the unquenchable lure of Mother Russia, perhaps, or the hope of even greater success at home-he returned to his native land in 1933 and took up his duties in helping build the Great Soviet Society.  To make his music serve the practical purposes demanded by the government, most of the creations of his remaining two decades were written in a simpler, more directly expressive style than were his earlier works so as to be accessible to the Russian masses (i.e. Socialist Realism).  Lieutenant Kije, Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, and Alexander Nevsky all date from the years immediately after his return.  Just before he left Paris, however, Prokofiev had set down sketches for a cello concerto that he carried with him back to Russia.  The work lay dormant for some time, and it was not until 1938 that he got around to completing it.  Perhaps the 1933 sketches for a stark, modern concerto fit uncomfortably into Prokofiev’s deliberately popular style of the early Soviet years, but the work foundered completely at its premiere.  “First-rate music, but somehow it doesn’t quite come off,” confided the composer Nikolai Miaskovsky to his diary.  Prokofiev, surprised at the failure, laid the Cello Concerto aside.

Eleven years later, in 1949, Prokofiev wrote the Cello Sonata, op. 119 for the brilliant, 22-year old Mstislav Rostropovich.  Rostropovich, as exuberant of personality and profligate of talent as any performer of the century, inspired Prokofiev to a further examination of the cello’s potential as a solo instrument, and the immediate result was the resurrection of the op. 58 Concerto. In 1950, the composer made the first attempt at a revision, but soon abandoned it.  Unwilling to allow the opportunity for a major work to slip through his fingers, Rostropovich invited himself to the composer’s country home during the summer of the following year, and insisted that they sit down together to complete the project.  Master composer and master performer spent several weeks together in an intense collaboration, completely revising the old Concerto.  Prokofiev continued on his own during the following months, and the revision was finished by early 1952, only one year before the composer’s death.  After Rostropovich introduced the Sinfonia Concertante in February, the newspaper Sovietskoye Iskusstvo noted that he had “helped to bring out more fully the richest melodic and technical possibilities of the instrument.”  The review should also have mentioned that without his inspiration and determination one of the most significant compositions in the none-too-large solo cello repertory may have never come to fruition.
In creating the Sinfonia Concertante from the earlier work, Prokofiev retained the Concerto’s formal outlines and much of its melodic material while significantly changing its overall proportions, orchestration, thematic development, and solo part.  The first movement is a spacious sonata form with the feeling of a slow march.  The main theme comprises a stern, rising, four-note motive, much repeated, and lyrical, wide-ranging melodies for the soloist.  The second theme is a shimmering scalar figure that descends from the highest reaches of the violins.  The central section of the movement is a discussion between soloist and orchestr
a of another melody, initiated by clarinets and bassoons, whose thematic manipulations and instrumental interplay justify the word “symphony” in the work’s title.  The recapitulation begins with the return of the rising four-note motive in the low strings, supported by solemn taps on the bass drum.

The second movement is in Prokofiev’s motoric, toccata style.  Rostropovich’s influence is clearly evident in the fiendishly difficult solo part, with its flashing arpeggios and sizzling scales.  Some of the pages, such as those based on the insouciant, nose-thumbing ditty first strutted out by the solo oboe, are flavored with the satirical wit so characteristic of Prokofiev.  As a contrast to the snapping sarcasm of this music, Prokofiev allotted to the soloist an extended section based on a truly beautiful theme about which Israel Nestyev (Prokofiev’s Soviet biographer) wrote in his authoritative study of the composer, “It would be difficult to find another melody of such unusual breadth and emotional power in all of Prokofiev’s music.”

Leo Eylar

Program Notes by Dr. Richard Rodda


Sergei Prokofiev

(1891 - 1953)