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Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Claudio Bohórquez, cello, plays Prokofiev's Sinfonia concertante / Symphonies by Brahms & Haydn Nov. 6 - 8, 2014
© Thomas May

Upon his repatriation to the Soviet Union (he'd fled into exile during the Revolution), Sergei Prokofiev largely turned his attention to works involving theater and film or the setting of texts. He had evolved an aesthetic position geared toward what he dubbed a "new simplicity" even before his return to the homeland, which he put into practice in such works as Romeo and Juliet.  

      But purely abstract concert scores like symphonies and concertos posed a special problem of their own. The fate of Prokofiev's Cello Concerto No. 1, Op. 58, might be seen as a harbinger of the bad things to come. Premiered in November 1938 in Moscow, it was a failure. Richter, who played a crucial role in the genesis of the Sinfonia concertante, was also involved in that premiere, since he served as the rehearsal pianist for the cello soloist, Lev Berezovsky. According to Richter's account, Berezovsky not only lacked the technique needed for this difficult piece but, like the conductor, wasn't on the right wavelength to get what Prokofiev was after. Notes biographer Daniel Jaffé, "the concerto's terse style overall failed to appeal to the Soviet audience."

      Prokofiev himself had undertaken writing his first concerto for cello with reluctance, after being urged to do so while still in Paris by the virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky (who later gave the American premiere in Boston in 1940). He had spent considerable time on the score, from 1933 to 1938, but the Concerto was nearly forgotten, until, a decade later, the impetus behind this music was reactivated when Prokofiev chanced to hear a gifted 20-year-old cello student from the Moscow Conservatory perform his Op. 58 with piano accompaniment (Richter again at the keyboard) in a recital program in 1948. 

      Prokofiev uncharacteristically came backstage to congratulate the cellist, who was none other than Mstislav Rostropovich. According to Elizabeth Wilson's biography, Slava later recalled, "Sergey Sergeyevich congratulated me, and told me, ‘You know, I'd like to make some changes to this concerto. Although there is some very good material in the piece, the structure is not compact enough. If you would be willing to help me I'd be most grateful.' To hear such words from Prokofiev sent me into total delirium. It was one of the happiest moments of my life."

And thus began a very fruitful relationship between Prokofiev and Rostropovich, who became a major champion of contemporary composers throughout his career. The best-known result is the work that is sometimes called the Sinfonia concertante, Op. 125, though its more appropriate title is the hybrid Symphony-Concerto. ("Sinfonia concertante" resulted from an imprecise translation of the Russian title; to the extent that this implies a connection to the eighteenth-century genre represented by Mozart's beloved Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, K. 364, it is utterly misleading.) 

      First Prokofiev wrote a Cello Sonata for his new friend (Op. 119), and following the Symphony-Concerto he embarked on another piece for cello and orchestra, the Concertino in G minor, Op. 132, though he completed this only in short score before his death in 1953. (Ironically, he died the same day as Stalin.) Op. 132 was later completed by Dmitry Kabalevsky, in consultation with Rostropovich.) Another project left unfinished was a sonata for solo cello. 

      It would be difficult to overstate the life-affirming significance of Rostropovich's friendship with Prokofiev in the composer's bitter final years.  On February 10, 1948, the Communist Party Central Committee published a condemnation of leading Soviet composers as part of Stalin's efforts to tighten the ideological vice in the midst of postwar euphoria. As usual, the accusation centered on deviance from the prescribed doctrine of Socialist Realism (i.e., accessibly tuneful music with an optimistic, traditionalist bent). The catchall vice of "formalism" was the convenient charge brought against anything that displeased those in power, often acting out of professional jealousy.

      Stalin's chief of thought-police, Andrei Zhdanov, led the 1948 convention of Soviet composers that denounced Prokofiev, Shostakovich (for his second round), and other composers as deviant formalists. Thus tarred-and-feathered, Prokofiev would have an uphill battle getting his works performed, despite later partial rehabilitation. Meanwhile, his foreign-born first wife was arrested on a trumped-up espionage charge and sentenced to twenty years in the gulag, and Prokofiev's health deteriorated.

      This is the context in which Rostropovich attempted to boost the composer's spirits. "The two years following Prokofiev's condemnation by the Union of Soviet Composers were desperate," writes Jaffé. "Despite [his second wife] Mira's support, it is quite possible that Prokofiev would have suffered a total collapse in his creativity but for his friendship with the young Rostropovich." 

      Following the Cello Sonata, Prokofiev at last made good on his promise to revise the Op. 58 Concerto. "Revise" is actually the wrong term, since the composer's changes were so thoroughgoing in terms of developing the original thematic material and rethinking the design of the work that he gave it the title Cello Concerto No. 2. He relied on the advice he sought from his new cellist friend, offered during extensive visits to his country home, and dedicated the new score to him. 

      Rostropovich gave the premiere in 1952; this time Richter was on the podium, leading the Moscow Youth Orchestra - apparently the only occasion on which the pianist conducted. Prokofiev subsequently decided to make further revisions, particularly to clarify the orchestration (having expanded the ensemble originally used for the Op. 58 score). At this point he again retitled the work Symphony-Concerto, reflecting the role of concertante and symphonic aspects that are equally integral to the music. Prokofiev died before he could hear the premiere of this final form of a piece he had begun as long ago as 1933: Rostropovich gave the premiere in Copenhagen in 1954. In November 1965, the cellist chose the Symphony-Concerto for his debut performance with the National Symphony, which was conducted by Howard Mitchell. 

      Though the Symphony-Concerto is cast in the conventional three movements, their proportions are unusual: the outer movements are equal in duration, while the central movement is a vast, complex Scherzo replete with wild ideas and a thrilling extended cadenza. The work begins with a relatively slow movement that proceeds with the character of a march, propelled by an ascending four-note theme. The solo cellist enters in right away, its long-winding, eloquent melody splayed against the insistent, four-square pattern of the motto theme. This juxtaposition, along with the contrast of ascending and descending figures, fuels the drama of the movement. 

      The Scherzo, with its manic rhythms and shocks of orchestration, looks back to Prokofiev's avant-garde, "bad boy" period in the West, above all in its steely sarcasm and virtuoso fireworks. (His own instrument was the piano.) But it also makes room for lyrical rapture, above all in the music for the solo cello that relaxes the mood and paves the way for the cadenza. 

      Prokofiev turns to the theme and variations format for his finale, working with a "safely" folkish theme (given by the cellist at the beginning that fits the mandates of Socialist Realist accessibility. Yet he included a parodistic interlude initiated by the bassoon and strings and featuring a popular melody that one of Prokofiev's bureaucratic antagonists had adapted. The latter became outraged when he recognized this at the play-through of the work necessary before it could be approved for public performance. Whether this was meant as a subversive nose-thumbing, Rostropovich later said the composer rewrote the offending passage but told him "to replace the original theme when the scandal had simmered down," as Jaffé reports. The coda represents another section significantly reworked by Prokofiev from his original material, ending the Symphony-Concerto with a spirited flight into the instrument's heights, deftly punctuated by the timpani.