PROKOFIEV: Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor, Op. 125; Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119 – Zuill Bailey, c./ North Carolina Sym. Orch./ Grant Llewelly/ Natasha Paremski, p. – Steinway & Sons 30057, 61:56 (5/13/16) ****:
Tough-minded Prokofiev in the tradition of Rostropovich—and with the same sensitivity to the gentler side of this great Russian composer.
Toward the end of his greatly productive life, Prokofiev revisited some of his earlier works with which he wasn’t entirely happy. One of these pieces was the Fourth Symphony, Op. 47, written under commission from the Boston Symphony and premiered by that orchestra in 1930. The symphony was based on themes from Prokofiev’s ballet The Prodigal Son, composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Critical reaction to the work was lukewarm at best. The consensus was that Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony was much less successful in recycling music written for the stage than the composer’s Symphony No. 3, based on themes from his opera The Fiery Angel.
Prokofiev was so stung by the criticism that he defended his new symphony in the press—and that hurt and embarrassment stayed with him when he went back to Russia in the mid-1930s. In 1947, Prokofiev returned to the symphony, determined to turn it into a work that would finally register with the Russian public. And he was so convinced that he had transmogrified the earlier work into a wholly new, independent creation that he gave the revision a new opus number, Op. 112. Ironically, as it turns out, Prokofiev was both right and wrong about his reworking: critics seem to favor the earlier version, though the revision is far and away the favored version of conductors, as witness the numerous recordings of the later version.
Another work that underwent significant revision was Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto premiered in Moscow in 1938. Again, for a variety of reasons, including an unsympathetic reading by the cellist and orchestra, this was largely a bust. However, the work did have an occasional outing thereafter, including a performance by the young Mstislav Rostropovich in 1947, which the composer happened to attend. Prokofiev was so impressed that he vowed to improve on the original, of course with the young cellist in mind. In the meantime, Prokofiev managed to create a masterpiece specifically for Rostropovich, the Cello Sonata Op. 119 of 1949. The reworking of the Cello Concerto took a bit longer, but finally Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante (also known as Symphony-Concerto), dedicated to Rostropovich, was premiered in 1952, a little more than a year before the composer’s death.
Unlike the reworking of the Symphony No. Four, the composition, or recomposition, of the Sinfonia Concertante came in the wake of the Soviet Politburo’s 1948 condemnation of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (and more surprisingly, Khachaturian and Miaskovsky) for their alleged abandonment of the tenets of Social Realism. At this point Prokofiev was a sick man, suffering from the results of a concussion caused by a fall associated with his chronic hypertension. His doctors ordered that he restrict his compositional activities to an hour a day(!), and so Prokofiev dedicated his time to working on the Sinfonia Concertante.
It is certainly a different work from the Cello Concerto premiered in 1938, though scholars are divided about whether it is simply an expanded version of the earlier piece or an entirely new animal, as Prokofiev supposed the reworking of his Fourth Symphony to be. Thanks to the efforts of Steven Isserlis, who has recorded the work
twice to my knowledge, interested listeners can judge for themselves. As for me, I think the reworked piece is different enough, and improved enough, to warrant the new opus number—and then some.
Yet it’s still not as easy to live with as Prokofiev’s greatest concertos, the two Violin Concertos and the Second and Third Piano Concertos. There’s something odd about the Sinfonia’s layout or rhetoric—or both. For one thing, I suppose the title Sinfonia Concertante (or, even more tellingly, Symphony-Concerto) indicates Prokofiev’s desire to expand his concerto into the realm of a concerto for orchestra-cum-cello concerto. And it does seem to have ambitions and scope beyond Prokofiev’s other string concerti. The work starts with two longish sonata-form movements, the first a slow movement (Andante), the second a frenetic, scherzo-like movement with a long, double stop–heavy cadenza.
In both movements, it seems obvious that Prokofiev is trying, as he always did in the last tragic years of his life, to satisfy the arcane demands of Socialist Realism while staying true to his essential Modernist roots. The first melodies in movements 1 and 2 are angular, severe, while the second melodies would be at home in the gentler scenes of the great ballets he wrote in the Soviet Union. For me, a Prokofiev devotee of the first order, the materials of the Sinfonia Concertante don’t always jell, though they really do in the finale, a variations-form movement that has some of the irreverence of the old Prokofiev, as well as a wildly motoric conclusion that is reminiscent of the final pages of his reworked Symphony No. 4. So you see, I had a couple of reasons for mentioning Prokofiev’s Op. 112.
The Sinfonia Concertante hasn’t lacked for skilled advocates, including Raphael Walfisch, Mischa Maisky, Pieter Wispelwey, Ha-Na Chang, and of course the dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. I had the good fortune of being able to compare Zuill Bailey’s new recording with those of Raphael Walfisch (Chandos) and Rostropovich (Erato) and came to the unoriginal conclusion that there are any number of ways to skin a musical cat. Rostropovich’s performance is both classic and of unique historic significance. I find that Zuill Bailey’s performance of the work is very much in the Rostropovich tradition—large-scale, imposing, emphasizing the Modernist elements of the work. Walfisch and Neeme Järvi, on a vintage Chandos recording, give a bit more emphasis to the tender, simplified art that Prokofiev cultivated, or tried to, when he returned to his native land. To that end, Walfisch employs more legato, even injecting some Romantic slides between notes. It seems as valid an approach as the more aggressive ones taken by Rostropovich and Bailey. Also, the highly resonant recording tends to knock some of the hard edges off Prokofiev’s writing for cello and orchestra both.
Which brings us back to Zuill Bailey’s performance with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. The close-in, very present recording seems to emphasize the more muscular Modernist approach that Bailey pursues. The tender bits aren’t slighted, mind you, but this performance underscores the tough-minded, angular musical language that was a hallmark of Prokofiev’s finest compositions right up to the end. And while the North Carolina Symphony is clearly a very fine band, it almost certainly has a smaller string section than the London Symphony, which backed up Rostropovich on my comparison disc from Erato. But the leanness of texture, plus the close-up recording and crystal clarity afforded the percussion and brass, provide an increased sense of parity between soloist and orchestral musicians. This seems to place Prokofiev’s conceit of a sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra in a whole new light, emphasizing that, like the sinfonias concertante of Mozart and Haydn, Prokofiev’s work looks back to the genesis of the form in the Baroque concerto grosso, which posited a rather intimate dialog between soloist(s) and orchestra. The current recording is not merely a valid approach but one that all lovers of Prokofiev should be aware of.
The very appropriate coupling is the Cello Sonata Op. 119, written for Rostropovich as a kind of promissory note, and a wonderful one it is too. Again, the work balances angular melodies and dissonant harmonies with beautifully sustained melodic passages in a way that Prokofiev could have patented, if the Soviet Union would have allowed such individualistic endeavor. Bailey and his very fine accompanist Natasha Paremski emphasize the more Modernist side of Prokofiev, in keeping with the performance of the Sinfonia Concertante. Some listeners may find the approach a bit unrelenting, but it’s an exciting interpretation nonetheless. For me, this disc offers new ways of listening to one of my favorite composers, and for that I’m grateful.