Program Notes

Sinfonia concertante in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 125

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev

BORN: April 23, 1891. Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine

DIED: March 5, 1953. Moscow

COMPOSED: 1950, drawing on material previously used in the Cello Concerto in E minor of 1933.

WORLD PREMIERE: February 18, 1952, in Moscow. Mstislav Rostropovich (its dedicatee) was soloist with Sviatoslav Richter conducting the Moscow Youth Symphony. After further revisions in 1952, the final version of the Sinfonia concertante was introduced in Copenhagen on December 9, 1954; Rostropovich was soloist and Thomas Jensen conducted the Danish State Radio Symphony.

US PREMIERE: April 19, 1956. Rostropovich was soloist, and Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—May 1956. Rostropovich was again soloist and Enrique Jordá conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2004. Lynn Harrell was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted.

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, bass drum, side drum, celesta, and strings, in addition to the solo cello.

DURATION: About 37 mins

THE BACKSTORY Sergei Prokofiev died in Moscow at about 9:00 on the evening of March 5, 1953, as the sudden result of a cerebral hemorrhage. Americans learned of his passing before most Soviets did. By a curious turn of fate, his last act was upstaged in his own land by one of the few personalities capable of doing so: Joseph Stalin, who died scarcely an hour later. All official attention would be turned towards Stalin’s obsequies. As a result, not more than fifty people attended Prokofiev’s funeral, at which David Oistrakh played excerpts from the composer’s F minor Violin Sonata and Sviatoslav Richter placed a pine bough on the coffin.

It was an ironic send-off to a composer whose life and work had been informed by curious and even poignant juxtapositions. As did many of his contemporaries, Prokofiev evinced an uneasy stance towards his country. When the Bolshevik Revolution hit, he left for what he figured would be a visit of several months to New York (which he reached via Vladivostock, Tokyo, and San Francisco). As it happened, the Revolution did not blow over, with the result that Prokofiev spent the first half of his career abroad, in New York until 1922, and in the avant-garde climate of Paris from 1922 to 1936. But he missed Russia, and much of his time during those years he spent with other Russian expatriates. The pull of his native land grew strong, and after a couple of trips to Moscow in the early 1930s, he decided to return definitively in 1936.

That was precisely when Soviet musical life was becoming consolidated under the iron-fisted, isolating auspices of the Union of Soviet Composers. Prokofiev weathered the challenge reasonably well until 1948, when he was censured by the Central Committee of the Communist Party (along with quite a few other prominent composers) for writing music “marked with formalist perversions . . . alien to the Soviet people.” An opera he was writing at the time, The Story of a Real Man, was not allowed to be produced, and the composer’s health began to decline. He managed to complete only two further large-scale works, his Seventh Symphony (1951-52), and his Sinfonia concertante for Cello and Orchestra (1950), written for Mstislav Rostropovich.

Prokofiev had begun writing an E minor Cello Concerto in 1933 or early 1934, and after many delays it was finally completed and premiered in November 1938. It was received with such devastating negativity that Prokofiev promptly withdrew the score. But nearly a decade later, in 1947, Mstislav Rostropovich—then a twenty-year-old musician at the beginning of his career—somehow acquired a copy and performed it in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Prokofiev attended the concert, and after the performance he told Rostropovich he would revise the concerto for him. As months passed, the young cellist proved tenacious in reminding Prokofiev about his promise. Before the composer got to that project, however, he composed a cello sonata for Rostropovich, and their fruitful collaboration would ultimately give rise to four new additions to the cello literature (two of which, however, the composer left in fragmentary form). As Rostropovich reported in his memoirs: “When I played the Sonata in C major by Prokofiev, he immediately began composing his Sinfonia concertante. And when I played the Sinfonia concertante, he set about composing the Concertino. Before he finished the Concertino, he had already embarked on his Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello, though he died before finishing it.” The Concertino was completed by Rostropovich and the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky; the Unaccompanied Sonata was not far enough to allow even a reasonable “completion.” Rostropovich’s name is also attached to the published score of the Sinfonia concertante as its editor; it is said that he provided much input concerning the solo part and also assisted Prokofiev in orchestrating the final version.

The sinfonia concertante was a genre, especially popular in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, in which more than one instrument stood in the spotlight—essentially a group concerto. But the cello is the only full soloist in Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante. When the composer set about revising his E minor Cello Concerto, he actually labeled the essentially new piece as his Cello Concerto No. 2 (Opus 125), and it was introduced as such by Rostropovich. But in 1952 Prokofiev subjected his revision to yet another going-over and unveiled it yet again (still as Opus 125) under the rubric Sinfonia concertante. Prokofiev never heard the piece in its final form, which Rostropovich introduced posthumously in Copenhagen. The work is often referred to as his Symphony-Concerto, a title promoted by the music historian Boris Schwarz as the best translation of the work’s Russian heading, which would be transliterated as Simfonia-Kontsert. For better or worse, “Sinfonia concertante” is the title on the standard Boosey & Hawkes score, which is employed in this performance. Whether Sinfonia concertante or Symphony-Concerto, the title stands as testament to the exceptionally active and challenging orchestral parts, which exceed what one might traditionally expect from an “accompanimental” body.

The musicologist Israel Nestyev acknowledged the somewhat hybrid style of this hard-won, twilight addition to Prokofiev’s catalogue: “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 . . .  must not be construed as the predominant stylistic elements of the work. On the contrary, it is the broad and idiomatic singing themes . . . that are the most prominent features of this composition.”

THE MUSIC The Sinfonia concertante is a large-boned work that unrolls over about forty minutes, and the soloist is active nearly throughout, with strikingly little time off. The span is divided into three movements, and there is considerable variety of tempo within the individual movements. As Nestyev suggested, the piece offers an abundance of appealing melodies, many of which tend towards the lyrical, underscoring the solo instrument’s strongest suit. Nonetheless, the score makes full use of the cello’s possibilities, including, in the opening movement, even four-note chords played pizzicato. The orchestration is masterful, and one can only appreciate the fact that Rostropovich was free with his advice in that department. In many cello concertos one sees a good deal more cello-playing than one actually hears, since the essentially low-pitched cello is easily drowned out by orchestral textures not kept in check. Here Prokofiev uses a full symphony orchestra but draws from its ranks selectively, often employing his winds as secondary soloists—again, observing the ideal of the sinfonia concertante. The orchestration is also brave. Many composers addressing the “cello-versus-orchestra” balance have kept especially careful check on the mid-range and low-pitched members of the orchestra so as to leave the soloist free to explore without competition. In this work, however, Prokofiev makes especially characterful use of precisely those instruments—bassoons and horns, for example, as well as the lower orchestral string sections—adding color without in any way overshadowing the solo cello.

The middle movement (mostly fast, though with much variation in tempo) is considerably longer than the outer movements, and hence serves as the work’s center of gravity. In its midst Prokofiev provides the soloist with a challenging cadenza—two pages long in the score—that neatly segues back into the ongoing flow of the movement. The finale opens with a theme of proud melancholy that is then bantered around the orchestra in a feast of counterpoint. From this emerges a passage for solo cello—not so much a true cadenza, since it is entirely written out and barred at tempo, as an unaccompanied episode of thematic material. The movement proceeds, at quickening tempo, through a sort of danse macabre, and then reaches a magical passage with an overlay of solo celesta. The solo cello eventually intones a motif consisting of arpeggios. That marks the final sprint towards the finish line, by which point the cellist’s arpeggios have led to the stratosphere of the instrument’s range. —James M. Keller      


More about the music:

Recordings: Truls Mørk with Paavo Järvi leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Virgin Classics)Mstislav Rostropovich with Seiji Ozawa conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Elatus/Warner Classics)  |  Rafael Wallfisch with Neeme Järvi conducting the Royal Scottish Orchestra (Chandos)

Reading: Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking)  |  Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, translated and edited by Robinson (Northeastern)  |  Prokofiev: From Russia to the West, 1891-1935, by David Nice (Yale)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: Soviet Diary 1927 and Other Writings, translated and edited by the composer’s son Oleg Prokofiev (Faber & Faber)

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