Prokofiev – Sinfonia Concertante

by Max Derrickson

Sergei Prokofiev     (Born in Ukraine, April 27, 1891; died in Moscow, March 5, 1953)

Sinfonia Concertante
I. Andante
II. Allegro giusto
III. Andante con moto

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The Sinfonia Concertante, however, the last orchestral work Prokofiev would compose, seems to be one of those pieces, like Romeo and Juliet and his Symphony No. 5, that defy the notion of a broken spirit.  In fact, it deserves to be cherished in the same echelon as Prokofiev’s other masterpieces, but for the fickle ides of fate, has remained relatively unknown.  It was first completed and premiered in 1938 as his Cello Concerto, Op. 58, but was panned by the Soviet authorities, in particular, the head apparatchik, Vladimir Zakharov.  It lay neglected for years until Prokofiev heard the young and brilliantly talented Mstislav Rostropovich reviving it 1949.  With its spirit revived, so was Prokofiev’s, and thus ensued a total reworking of the concerto in close collaboration with Rostropovich.  So different was this reworking from the original Concerto that Prokofiev considered calling it his Cello Concerto No. 2, but eventually settled on the current title (also known as “Symphony-Concerto” due to early translation problems from the Russian) and it was premiered by Rostropovich in 1951.  Again, its reception was cool, and to blame was the omniscient condemnation of Zakharov, who seemed only to be able to fit Soviet anthems and children’s choruses into his conception of Socialist Realism.

The Concertante begins with a slow movement, atypical of most concerto structures, but here it truly fits the character of this singing concerto for the rich timbres of the cello.  Immediately Prokofiev unveils those traits which make him one of the great 20th Century composers – rich, sometimes colossal orchestration, long and asymmetrical melodic themes – quirky but winsome – and edgy yet Romantic harmonies.  The cello is often in the forefront in this concerto, but its integration with the orchestral fabric makes this work more than just a virtuosic showstopper, rather, a fully organic musical expression with the cellist as its lead narrator.

The second movement takes the typical form of what most first movements would,
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Perhaps for humor’s sake, around 2 minutes after the cadenza, a whimsical moment arrives where the horns enter above a simple accompaniment which hints at a section of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, which is then additionally accompanied by bassoons noodling around with an excerpt from Prokofiev’s own Peter and the Wolf.  On the whole, this contrasting and capricious movement works perfectly in the structure of the concerto, as the finale’s character is both humorous and manic, thus balancing the concerto’s three movements expertly.

As for the Soviet heavy handedness breaking Prokofiev’s spirit, the finale completely defies that notion.  Here is Prokofiev at his most sarcastic, silly and fiery.  The movement begins with a folk-tune like theme which Prokofiev then runs through a series of delicious variations.  Before long, after the horns break in with a quick triplet motive, comes a variation that pokes a lot of fun at the dreadful Zakharov.  Here Prokofiev’s folk-tune has changed into a rendition of a drinking song, “Our Toast,” penned by Zakharov himself.  As Russian musicologist Boris Zindels noted, “how brave [Prokofiev] had been to treat such “sacred” material in such a scathingly satirical manner during such a bleak period in his life! …”
[. . .]

Perhaps Prokofiev’s most brilliant writing in this movement, though, comes at the close.  After a beautiful and diaphanous moment with celesta (like a glockenspiel piano) and the soloist’s nostalgic meanderings, all hell begins to break out.  Suddenly the cellist is boiling over in double-stops (2 notes played at once) at a furious pace.
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It wonderfully adds to the character of a great composer’s defiant spirit, and to one of Prokofiev’s finest works.