Wispelwey, v. Aalst
Prokofiev was a musical polyglot and chameleon and his Sinfonia Concertante is a continent without borders, a journey through style, language, time and tradition, like a postmodernist statement avant la lettre. A more than thorough reworking of a Thirties cello concerto became a postwar Cyclopean piece full of contrasts: dark and light, animalistic and ethereal, cruel and tender, serious and sardonic, rugged and sophisticated, a feast to play and an orgy to witness.
The three movements are spectacularly diverse. An atavistic opening movement is followed by a second movement that starts off as a concerto allegro, but then keeps expanding, practically into a concerto by itself, with an abundance of all kinds of neo-classical, anarchistic and ‘danse macabre' elements, with elaborate, utterly expressive lyrical episodes and of course that outrageous cadenza. The third movement is a mixture of the pompous, the absurdist and the capricious. Something like a theme and variations set up is interrupted by a string of little dances with references to Mahler and Kurt Weill. The main theme returns in a mighty tutti version and after two further, more atmospheric and alienating variations, the movement works its way towards some sort of a threefold final climax, consisting of an orchestral cataclysm in combination with a soloist delirium.
In other words lots of Twenties, Thirties, lots of nineteenth century, Mongolia, Asia, Middle Europe, Slava, Stalin, euphoria, psychosis and beauty. Too much to mention.
The attraction for cellists lies in the phenomenal technical challenge, the lyrical intensity and the many different roles the soloist, as the main character in this epic, has to play. A great fighting spirit is asked for. If things go well and the dragon is down at the end, the satisfaction is enormous. Besides, who wouldn't want to be Slava for forty minutes? The presence and inspiration of the big man is all over the piece.
For this live recording, to have the support of Vassily Sinaisky and this orchestra, that has a decade of Gergiev behind it, was a tremendous privilege. They were exciting days.
The choice for the two solo encores, Tcherepnin and Crumb was made to give two examples on a totally different scale from the same early postwar years in which the Concertante was written. The Tcherepnin particularly, is almost on a miniaturist scale.
Before the October Revolution of 1917, he had been the enfant terrible of Russian music: Sergei Prokofiev. His sharp-toned, stony piano sound, combined with harmonies which were horrifying at the time he composed them, inevitably inspired violent polemics. The tremendous vitality of his music and playing won him the nickname of "the machine". In 1933 he returned, homesick for his native country, from a voluntary exile of fifteen years, but he landed in the middle of the worst nightmare imaginable. Sometimes he was accused of "Western barbarisms", sometimes he was awarded prizes by the state for bombastic "Soviet Music". He converted to what he called the "New Simplicity", with works like the Second Violin Concerto and the ballet music for Romeo and Juliet. These pieces fit in well with the Soviet musical ideology, which emphasized accessibility, but at the same time they represented a return to the romantic compositions Prokofiev's earliest years. Had the timorous composer managed to save his skin and become an obedient son of Stalin? Had he managed to save his soul as well? Prokofiev died in 1953, only a few hours after Stalin. He was not there to experience the cultural spring thaw that took place in Krushchev's Russia. In the midst of war and state-sponsored terror, one thing in Prokofiev's life retained its priceless value: friendship. It was for his good friend, Mstislav Rostropovich, that he composed the Sonata for cello and piano, op. 119, and the Sinfonia Concertante, op. 125.
The two men became acquainted during the time of the second great inquisition of 1948, at which time Rostropovich took up the cudgels in defense of Prokofiev. But Prokofiev, a thorough professional, was able to escape paranoia and the fear of official rebukes when he composed the Sonata for cello and piano op. 119; this music is lyrical and romantic, with even an occasional witty quality that is reminiscent of Prokofiev's favorite composer, Haydn. An echo of Mussorgski's powerful "Pictures at an Exhibition" can be heard in the closing pages of the work. The Sinfonia Concertante op. 125 owes its existence to the years of indifferent reception which initially greeted Prokofiev's First cello concerto op. 58. This was followed by the work's sudden success after a brilliant performance by Rostropovich, who encouraged Prokofiev to revise the entire composition, working intensively together with him in order to familiarize the composer with every aspect of cello technique. The first sketches for the First cello concerto op. 58 were written down in Paris in 1933, but the project dragged on through several interruptions including the film music for Alexander Nevski and the opera, Simon Kotko. The premiere of the completed First cello concerto took place in November 1938 in Moscow, and it was a failure. The soloist, Berezovski, had difficulty comprehending the work, and his performance during rehearsals was already inadequate, according to the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who at that time was working as the rehearsal pianist. After his colleague, the composer Miaskovski, remarked that "something was missing", Prokofiev revised the piece, in particular the cadenza. The revised version was performed by Gregor Piatigorski in the United States in 1940. Not until seven years later, in 1947, did Prokofiev hear Rostropovich's successful performance and allow himself to be persuaded to make drastic revisions to the piece.
In 1950-1952, the two men retreated during two successive summers to the country estate of Nikolina Gora in order to recast the work in its definitive form. During the winter, they met in Moscow. The premiere of the Sinfonia Concertante op. 125 took place on February 18, 1952 and was given by the Moscow Youth Orchestra, conducted by Sviatoslav Richter, making his first appearance as a conductor. Rostropovich, of course, performed the solo part. The audience heard an engrossing and not always amicable dialogue between cello and orchestra. It was a three-movement work, but it was not laid out in the mold of the traditional concerto form. The outer movements are slow, and the central movement, allegro giusto, in contrast, is quick and scherzo-like, filled with difficult technical gymnastics for the solo cello. Because of this movement, the Sinfonia Concertante op. 125 is one of the most difficult works in the cello repertoire. The cello is called upon to make use of its entire range, from the deepest bass register to tenuous violin-like sounds, and shows off an entire gamut of technical tricks such as spiccato (bouncing bow), rapid alternations between arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked), and complicated double-stopping.
During his early St. Petersburg years, Prokofiev often visited the highly musical Tcherepnin family. Father Nikolai had studied composition with Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov. This musical incubator, regularly visited by Liadov, Cui, Rimski-Korsakov, and Stravinsky, as well as Prokofiev, was an ideal setting in which the great talents of son Alexander (1899-1977) could expand and grow. At the age of fourteen, just like Prokofiev, he had already composed numerous piano pieces; he later organized these into sonatas and other cycles. The Tcherepnins left St. Petersburg as a result of the October Revolution of 1917, settling in the Georgian city of Tbilisi. Because of the communist takeover of Tbilisi, the family then moved to Paris in 1921, where Alexander studied piano with Isidore Philipp, who subsequently became a great promotor of the young composer's music. In Paris, Alexander Tcherepnin composed his first large-scale works, such as the dissonant First symphony (1927), as well as other works in an expressionistic and primitivistic style. Tcherepnin was deeply influenced by oriental music during his travels and long sojourns in China and Japan, in addition to his marriage with the Chinese pianist Lee Hsien Ming. The couple settled first in Paris and later in Chicago and New York, where Tcherepnin worked as a university professor. Tcherepnin's concise Suite for cello solo, composed in Paris in 1946, is a bit earlier in date than Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante. It is filled with Chinese influences, such as the use of the pentatonic scale and no fewer than two movements performed entirely pizzicato.
Nine years later, in 1955, a Cello sonata was composed by an American student who had come to study in Berlin. This was George Crumb (1929) who was to become one of America's most celebrated composers during the 1970s; but at that time he was as yet unknown, studying on a scholarship with Boris Blacher at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. The sonata gives clear evidence of Crumb's interest, both in the music of the classical/romantic school and the compositions of Bartók. Although Crumb was initially unwilling to preserve the sonata, he nevertheless allowed it to be published in 1958. By the time he returned to the university at Ann Arbor, Michigan, he had completed the work, which he submitted in completion of his Ph.D. studies. Crumb's Cello sonata is in three movements, a fantasia, a series of variations, and a toccata. In the opening movement, Crumb combines dissonant pizzicato chords with a commanding theme in descending thirds in the cello's middle register. The three variations of the second movement are based on a swaying siciliano theme, and the energetic closing movement, Toccata, is dominated by descending (c minor and A flat major) and ascending (b minor and E flat major) triads. Half way through the movement, the theme of the opening movement reappears in diminution; in this way Crumb gives a sense of cyclic organization to the work as a whole. In the midst of an era dominated by twelve-tone technique and serialism, Crumb seems to have hatched out a sample of dark-toned and highly expressive romanticism: ‘I believe that music surpasses even language in its power to mirror the innermost recesses of the human soul.'
Clemens Romijn (Translation: David Shapero)