Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125
Related Artists/CompaniesSergei Prokofiev
About the WorkOf Prokofiev's three works for cello and orchestra, only this one is widely performed. The last of the three, the Concertino, Op. 132, begun in 1952 and completed after Prokofiev's death by his colleague Dmitri Kabalevsky and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, remains virtually unknown. The other two are essentially two versions of the same work: the Sinfonia concertante, actually the last major work Prokofiev completed, grew out of his Cello Concerto, Op. 58, composed in the unsettled 1930s; like the Concertino, it was created for the young Rostropovich, who performed it in his debut concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra, on November 30 and December 1, 1965 (with Howard Mitchell conducting).
The Op. 58 Cello Concerto, conceived before Prokofiev returned to his homeland after his years in the West, was begun in the year in which he initiated his repatriation, 1933, but was not completed until 1938. During that period Prokofiev composed his Second Violin Concerto, the "orchestral fairy tale" Peter and the Wolf, the score for the film Lieutenant Kizheh (and the famous concert suite), and his ballet masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, but wrote little else for orchestra that was not related to his assignments for films, theater or dance. Having been repatriated voluntarily, he sincerely wanted his music to be accessible to Soviet audiences, and he felt at the time that he could do that most effectively in music outside the strictly "symphonic" sphere.
Another factor in his decision was the failure of his one major effort at creating an "abstract" symphonic work, the Symphonic Song, Op. 57, which he composed in 1933 but chose not to publish. (It was published posthumously, and has been recorded.) Indeed, the three symphonies he had composed in the West were all problematical in one way or another, and none found favor with conductors or audiences until after his death. The Third and Fourth were actually assembled with music from his stage works: No. 3 from his opera The Fiery Angel, No. 4 from his ballet The Prodigal Son. Virtuoso works, Prokofiev felt at the time, afforded another way of communicating with his new public, and he had the dubious pleasure of hearing his Second Violin Concerto (composed and introduced in 1935) praised in a speech by his fellow composer Tikhon Khrennikov, who congratulated him for having recognized "the utter futility of formalized experiments." (Khrennikov became head of the Union of Composers of the USSR in 1948, the year in which Prokofiev and Shostakovich headed the list of composers denounced for "formalism" by Stalin's spokesman Andrei Zhdanov, and held that powerful position until 1991, when the Composers' Union followed the Soviet Union itself in coming to the end of its existence.) Prokofiev himself felt his Cello Concerto was "very much like the Second Violin Concerto," and he was stunned by the disastrous failure of his Op. 58 at its 1938 premiere.
That failure has been attributed to the performance of the solo part by Lev Berezovsky, who is said to have compounded the work's difficulty with a sentimental approach conspicuously at odds with the score's own lean, driving character. A dozen years later Prokofiev returned to the work at the urging of the young cellist mentioned earlier. Mstislav Rostropovich was only 20 years old when he undertook a successful revival of the Op. 58 Concerto; Prokofiev was present at that performance, and was impressed enough not only to introduce himself to the young cellist but to promise to rewrite the work for him. Before he got round to that, he composed his Cello Sonata, Op. 119, for him in 1949; shortly after that Rostropovich went to stay with Prokofiev and his wife at their dacha in Nikolina Gora for an extended period of close artistic collaboration during which the Concerto was indeed rewritten. A draft prepared in 1950 was abandoned, but between the summer of 1951 and the end of that year the composer and the cellist worked together in creating the version eventually published as Op. 125.
Because there was so much that was new in the score, Prokofiev at first thought of calling it his Cello Concerto No. 2, but he eventually settled on a different title which gave some idea of the more equal status of the two performing elements. The published score bears the title "Symphony-Concerto," but the work came to be known by the more conventional title given precedence in the heading of these notes, identifying a form in use since the 18th century. While both titles-Symphony-Concerto and Sinfonia concertante-have been used in concerts and recordings, Rostropovich himself has favored the latter, and Prokofiev's American biographer Harlow Robinson, chairman of the Department of Slavic Languages at Northeastern University, advises that "the question about the title comes from translation confusion--something that often happened with scores of Soviet works, given awkward English translations [in Moscow] and never properly checked during the isolation of the Cold War years."
While the sinfonie concertanti that were so popular in the second half of the 18th century were for as many as four solo instruments rather than a single one, the use of this title for what is essentially a solo concerto was not without precedent in the 20th, when both Karol Szymanowski and William Walton affixed it to their piano concertos. In the present case the layout is somewhat unusual, though no more so than in several of Prokofiev's earlier concertos for other instruments. The first movement here is not the expected Allegro, but is the work's slow movement, an Andante. The second movement is a scherzo of Mahlerian proportions (Allegro giusto), and the finale is a theme and variations (Andante con moto--Allegro).
The work is really not so much a "revision" of the Op. 58 Concerto as a new composition based on materials from the earlier one. This is illustrated pointedly in the way fragments of the original middle movement turn up in different guises in the scherzo of Op. 125, and even more so in the contrasting structures of the two finales, both of which are sets of variations on the same theme. In Op. 58 the theme and three variations are separated by interudes and the coda is preceded by a section headed Reminiscenza, while in Op. 125 the movement is a more free-flowing sequence of variations. It may be further noted that Op. 125 adds a second pair of horns, three trombones and a celesta to the instrumentation of Op. 58.
When it was finally performed for the first time, in February 1952 (with Rostropovich as soloist and the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter in his only public appearance as a conductor), the Sinfonia concertante, too, was less than a success, but Prokofiev was thoroughly pleased with it. His biographer Israel Nestyev wrote of the work: In the Symphony-Concerto, just as in the Sixth Symphony and the last piano sonatas, the old and the new in Prokofiev stand side by side. The old manifests itself chiefly in the harshness of timbre and harmony and in the deliberately disjointed character of certain passages. . . . But these particular passages, which displeased some of the audience at the premiere, . . . must not be construed as the predominant stylistic elements of the work. On the contrary, it is the broad and idiomatic singing themes . . . that [constitute] the most prominent feature of this composition. To this, Boris Schwarz added, in his invaluable study Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1981: To Western ears, it was refreshing to recognize some of the "old" Prokofiev, the bite, the sweep, the unusual orchestral timbres, and the disregard for conventional virtuosity. The stylistic dichotomy is not disturbing because the entire work is put together with such a sure hand. Unquestionably, the Symphony-Concerto is the high point of Prokofiev's last creative years. Nestyev also made a reference to what appeared to be an allusion to a Belorussian "farewell" melody in the concluding movement of this work. One of the new elements--that is, material Prokofiev added, which had not been in the Op. 58 Concerto--does appear to be an allusion to a song, but it is not a folk tune, and not Belorussian. Rather, it is a sardonic citation of a ditty called "Our Toast," which contains the line "Let's drink to the Motherland! Let's drink to Stalin!" In a recent article on the subject, the Kiev-based Boris Zindels remarks, How brave Sergei Sergyevich had been to treat such "sacred" material in such a scathingly satirical manner during such a bleak period in his life! And how musically inventive Prokofiev was as well--the "drunk," swaying theme is played by cello solo, then bassoon, and then tutti strings in turn. . . . In a published statement of his own, Rostropovich identified the composer of the song and reported his reaction to finding it quoted in Prokofiev's score: In the finale . . . Prokofiev incorporated a theme that was similar to a popular song by Vladimir Zakharov, an apparatchik who mercilessly vilified all "formalists." After the work was played at the Union of Composers, Zakharov stood up and said indignantly that he would write to the papers complaining that his own wonderful tune had been totally distorted. When I related this to Prokofiev he wrote a replacement tune (a waltz, which I never played), and said that once everything had settled down we would quietly revert to the original tune. The manuscript, which is in my keeping, includes both versions. Mr. Zindels's copyright article, edited by Sugi Sorenson, is available in full on the Website The Prokofiev Page (http://www.prokofiev.org/articles/sinfonia.html). It includes the complete text to the song in question, and also the observation that Prokofiev, who died on the same day as Stalin, managed to have, in the finale of this work, "the last laugh on the 'cockroach with whiskers,'" as Ossip Mandelstam referred to the dictator in an untitled poem given in English at the end of the article.