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Wavering Over Sergei Sergeievich

June 26, 2007

As the lights were going down in Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday night, I caught a line in the program book asking "What are we to make of Prokofiev ..." but had no chance to read further before the hall went dark. The question — after a childhood of mandatory Prokofiev in a Soviet-occupied country and a subsequent lifetime of listening to him by choice — didn't make sense. What is there to "make" of the composer of the ever-loving Romeo and Juliet, of the sparkling piano concertos, of great film scores? During the intermission, I looked up the article, by the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator, James M. Keller, and found that he indeed was raising the question whether Prokofiev "possessed musical genius or [grew] to eminence thanks mostly to polished technique ... and [by] applying a veneer of originality to tried-and-true musical formulas?"
No such question had ever occurred to me about Dmitri Shostakovich, Prokofiev's countryman, contemporary, and fellow punching bag for that great music critic Stalin. And now, Keller's question, and my long-held theories that the former composer grows with repetition and the latter one doesn't, plus a less-than-happy concert experience on Saturday, combined to raise a new question in my mind: Present an entire festival of Prokofiev? Hmmm. Maybe not.
Young Prokofiev Is Good Prokofiev
While the pretty and enjoyable 1911 Piano Concerto No. 1, which Prokofiev composed at age 20, received a fluent and attractive performance by the youthful Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev (with Michael Tilson Thomas' orchestra accompanying him supportively, if not with special brilliance), and several excerpts from the overfamiliar Cinderella ballet sounded bubbly enough, my suddenly developing Prokofiepticism was only strengthened.

The Lieutenant Kijé Symphonic Suite, which lives on forever as the score for Alex Guinness' misdeeds in the 1958 film The Horse's Mouth (and how was that fact omitted from the program notes?), usually sparkles and fizzes — though not this time. MTT's typical buoyancy seemed to be in short supply, in an adequate but rather uninteresting performance. To his credit, while the conductor was not trying to make more of the music than it is and should be, I still felt a sense of something pedestrian or even slightly fatigued about the performance.

A performance of the Piano Concerto No. 5 of 1932 (Op. 55), a rarely performed work that contains thick ostinato passages but few appealing themes, revealed the larger problem to be in the music itself rather than the playing of it. It requires a good deal of "banging" on the keyboard, which soloist Mikhail Rudy performed faithfully and vigorously. Yet despite its unusual five-movement structure and Stravinsky-manqué rhythmic ambitions, the concerto failed to revive my stronger feelings for Prokofiev. Even with its 25-minute run, I felt tedium set in, interspersed with feelings of something jejune.

The First Piano Concerto (Op. 10) is another matter. Here, Prokofiev took his inspiration from Tchaikovsky, and the work’s opening "big sound" is more than an imitation of the older composer — it's a successful "restatement" of him. Youthful, unshowy, but with plenty of razzle-dazzle when appropriate, this D-flat major concerto proves once more a truism: The younger Sergei Prokofiev was, the more interesting the music he produced.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].