Prokofiev, Serge (1891-1953)
Portrait (1926) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1884–1967)

Serge Prokofiev

born: 23 April 1891
died: 5 March 1953
country: Russia

‘You never knew what to expect of Prokofiev. He was friendly, but not an easy guy to talk to. I don’t remember ever talking with him about anything serious. He tended to play a light, bouncy game; he was boyish, easily bored, and even impolite at times. He enjoyed teasing people and loved to make witty remarks and tell stories. He was very bright and outspoken, and I can’t imagine that he would ever hide how he felt about anything.’ That’s how, in 1982, the American composer Aaron Copland recalled his meetings with Prokofiev half a century earlier. Although Prokofiev was well aware of the various artistic movements of the day, they rarely had more than a superficial effect on his music. Never seriously associated with any group or ‘-ism’, his self-assurance insulated him from much that might have been distracting. It also gave him a self-centred view of life and art that was both a strength and – in later years – the source of enormous personal problems. He never taught, and never theorised about what he was doing: but he reacted quickly and with imagination to the world around him – and what a world it was, beginning with the cloudy and exciting experiments of pre-revolutionary Russia, followed by the years of exile in Europe and America in the 1920s and 30s, and finally the grim years of Stalin’s Russia and the Nazi invasion.

Free of political ideology or any philosophical, religious or cultural preconceptions, he was generally prepared to adapt to the circumstances in which he found himself. He was, after all, capable of writing wonderful music to order, whether for the capricious Diaghilev, for chic Parisians in search of novelty, for children, for the Soviet masses or even to glorify Josef Stalin. He was the very opposite of the confessional artist who needs to bare his soul. If he had an artistic credo, it was simply to work hard and make it new. ‘I loath imitation. I hate ordinary methods. Originality is my goal and I want to be myself always.’

Some reminiscences of people who worked with him give a picture of an intimidating, rather cold figure. At rehearsals he was severe, brisk, unsparing of personal feelings. This was the outward persona of the hardworking professional who always had to be occupied, who could never bear to waste valuable time, who insisted on strict organisation and relentless punctuality.

But we also know how funny and kind he could be with his friends and family. Prokofiev remembered his childhood in the Ukrainian countryside as idyllically happy, and never lost a fresh, uncomplicated vision of the world. When fairy tales, animals and children are featured in his music they are never sentimentalised, but treated with irony, enjoyment and a delightful sense of the ridiculous. He liked to wear bright clothes (particularly ties and socks). Rather endearingly, his acute rhythmic sense did not extend to his own body when he was away from a keyboard: he was a clumsy dancer and an enthusiastic but erratic driver. A passionate chess player, he was delighted when in 1914 he managed to beat (just once) the reigning world champion Raul Capablanca. He loved word games and was at home in several languages. An accomplished traveller, he enjoyed good food, but was not interested in historical monuments and soon got bored with sightseeing. His friend the émigré composer Nicolas Nabokov recalled that all he could find to say when visiting Chartres Cathedral was, ‘I wonder how they got those statues up so high without dropping them’. He found it hard to take anything too seriously, often to his own disadvantage.

As a boy he was simply bursting with energy and talent, very sure of himself, and something of a spoiled brat. His student career followed the usual stages: precocious talent – golden boy – impatient radical – confounded nuisance. He came to wide public attention with two piano concertos, the first of which appeared in 1912, the same year as Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Futurist manifesto ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste’. Hostile critics, offended by Prokofiev’s high level of dissonance and his percussive treatment of the piano, thought that he, too, was slapping the public’s face. True, his music was often brash and provocative, and he certainly enjoyed being naughty, but there was much more to it than that: a tremendous vitality, a strong lyrical impulse and a rare prodigality of ideas.

Whatever compromises he had to make through the changing circumstances of his life, Prokofiev remained true to a musical character which was essentially formed by the time he was 20, a character that has proved both unique and widely appealing. In all his music we find striking images of contrast and confrontation, strange juxtapositions of mood, and powerful rhetoric followed by sudden moments of shy or tender reflection. Despite his generally cheerful nature there is plenty of darkness, even sometimes tragedy, but it is expressed with clear objectivity and never confused with self-indulgence or sentimentality.

from notes by Andrew Huth © 2009

Albums

Prokofiev, Shostakovich & Britten: Cello Sonatas
Studio Master: SIGCD274Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Prokofiev: Cello Concerto & Symphony-Concerto
CDA67705
Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf & other music for children
CDH55177Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 1, 4 & 5
CDA67029
Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
CDA66858To be superseded by CDH55440
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Studio Master: LSO0682Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet; Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition
CDH55306Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins; Milhaud: Sonata & Duo; Martinů: Sonatina
CDA66473Deleted
Prokofiev: String Quartets
CDH55032Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 & Violin Concerto No 2
Studio Master: CKD219Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas
Studio Master: CDA67514Best of 2014Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Prokofiev: Visions fugitives & Sarcasms; Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition
Studio Master: CDA67896Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Hyperion monthly sampler – December 2014
FREE DOWNLOADHYP201412Download-only monthly sampler NEW
No Exceptions No Exemptions
Studio Master: SIGCD401for the price of 1 — Download only NEWStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Arthur de Greef – Solo and concerto recordings
APR7401Download only
Britten, Prokofiev & Shostakovich: Cello Sonatas
Studio Master: SIGCD274Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Emil Gilels – Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt & Prokofiev
APR5663Download only
For Children
CDH55194Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Jorge Bolet – His earliest recordings
APR6009for the price of 1 — Download only
Michael Zadora – The complete recordings
APR6008for the price of 1 — Download only
Moura Lympany – The HMV Recordings, 1947-1952
APR6011for the price of 1 — Download only
Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
CDH55306Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Musorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition; Prokofiev: Visions fugitives & Sarcasms
Studio Master: CDA67896Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Nikolai Demidenko live at Wigmore Hall
CDD220242CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
Russian Songs
CDA67355
Shostakovich, Britten & Prokofiev: Cello Sonatas
Studio Master: SIGCD274Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
The Grand Organ of Birmingham Town Hall
CDA66216Archive Service
Vladimir Horowitz – The complete solo European recordings
APR6004for the price of 1 — Download only
Martinů: Sonatina; Milhaud: Sonata & Duo; Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins
CDA66473Deleted
Hyperion monthly sampler – July 2014
FREE DOWNLOADHYP201407Download-only monthly sampler

Complete works available for download

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 58Alban Gerhardt (cello), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op 119Jamie Walton (cello), Daniel Grimwood (piano)
Five Melodies, Op 35bisJoseph Swensen (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor)
Five Melodies, Op 35bisAlina Ibragimova (violin), Steven Osborne (piano)
Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Op 27Joan Rodgers (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano)
Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op 34Coull Quartet, Angela Malsbury (clarinet), David Pettit (piano)
Peter and the Wolf, Op 67New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor), Oleg Prokofiev (narrator), Gabriel Prokofiev (narrator)
Piano Concerto for the left hand No 4 in B flat major, Op 53Nikolai Demidenko (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D flat major, Op 10Nikolai Demidenko (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 16Nikolai Demidenko (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 16Jorge Bolet (piano)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C major, Op 26Nikolai Demidenko (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 5 in G major, Op 55Nikolai Demidenko (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
Piano Sonata No 2 in D minor, Op 14Emil Gilels (piano)
Romeo and Juliet, Op 64London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor)
Sarcasms, Op 17Steven Osborne (piano)
Sonata for two violins, Op 56Krysia Osostowicz (violin), Ernst Kovacic (violin)
String Quartet No 1 in B minor, Op 50Coull Quartet
String Quartet No 2 in F major, Op 92Coull Quartet
Summer Day, Op 65bNew London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor)
Symphony No 1 in D major 'Classical', Op 25Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor)
Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op 125Alban Gerhardt (cello), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor)
Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op 75Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
The Ugly Duckling, Op 18New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor), Penelope Walmsley-Clark (soprano)
Toccata in D minor, Op 11Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
Toccata in D minor, Op 11Vladimir Horowitz (piano)
Toccata in D minor, Op 11Moura Lympany (piano)
Toccata in D minor, Op 11Thomas Trotter (organ)
Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 63Joseph Swensen (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor)
Violin Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 80Alina Ibragimova (violin), Steven Osborne (piano)
Violin Sonata No 2 in D major, Op 94bisAlina Ibragimova (violin), Steven Osborne (piano)
Visions fugitives, Op 22Steven Osborne (piano)
Winter Bonfire, Op 122New London Orchestra, Ronald Corp (conductor)

Alphabetical listing of all musical works

5 Poems, Op 23 (Prokofiev)
Arrival of the guests  
At Friar Laurence's cell  
At Juliet's bedside  
Aubade  
Balcony scene  
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 58 (Prokofiev)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op 119 (Prokofiev)
Dance of the five couples  
Dance of the Knights  
Dance of the young girls with lilies  
Dance with mandolins  
Death of Juliet  
Death of Mercutio  
Finale  
Five Melodies, Op 35bis (Prokofiev)
Five Melodies, Op 35bis (Prokofiev/Swensen)
Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Op 27 (Prokofiev)
Folk dance  
Further public festivities  
Gavotta: Non troppo allegro  
Gavotte  
Interlude  
Juliet alone  
Juliet at Friar Laurence's  
Juliet refuses to marry Paris  
Juliet the young girl  
Juliet's bedroom  
Juliet's funeral  
Juliet's variation  
Lento  
Madrigal  
Masks  
Meeting of Tybalt and Mercutio  
Mercutio  
Morning dance  
Music for Children, Op 65 (Prokofiev)
nastoyashchuyu nezhnost' 'About real tenderness'  
Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op 34 (Prokofiev)
Pamyat' o solntse 'Thoughts of the sunlight'  
Peter and the Wolf, Op 67 (Prokofiev)
Piano Concerto for the left hand No 4 in B flat major, Op 53 (Prokofiev)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D flat major, Op 10 (Prokofiev)
Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 16 (Prokofiev)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C major, Op 26 (Prokofiev)
Piano Concerto No 5 in G major, Op 55 (Prokofiev)
Piano Sonata No 2 in D minor, Op 14 (Prokofiev)
Praeludium in D minor, BuxWV140 (Buxtehude/Prokofiev)
Prelude  
Preparations for the ball  
Romeo  
Romeo and Juliet  
Romeo and Juliet, Op 64 (Prokofiev)
Romeo and Juliet's love dance  
Romeo and Mercutio  
Romeo at Friar Laurence's  
Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio's death  
Romeo's variation  
Sarcasms, Op 17 (Prokofiev)
Seroglazïy korol' 'The grey-eyed king'  
Solntse komnatu napolnilo 'Sunlight filled the room'  
Sonata for two violins, Op 56 (Prokofiev)
String Quartet No 1 in B minor, Op 50 (Prokofiev)
String Quartet No 2 in F major, Op 92 (Prokofiev)
Summer Day, Op 65b (Prokofiev)
Symphony No 1 in D major 'Classical', Op 25 (Prokofiev)
Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op 125 (Prokofiev)
Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op 75 (Prokofiev)
Ten Pieces, Op 12 (Prokofiev)
The Duke's command  
The fight  
The last farewell  
The nurse  
The nurse delivers Juliet's letter to Romeo  
The people continue to make merry  
The quarrel  
The street awakens  
The Ugly Duckling, Op 18 (Prokofiev)
Toccata in D minor, Op 11 (Prokofiev)
Toccata in D minor, Op 11 (Prokofiev/Guillou)
Trust me  
Tybalt and Mercutio fight  
Tybalt recognises Romeo  
Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op 63 (Prokofiev)
Violin Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op 80 (Prokofiev)
Violin Sonata No 2 in D major, Op 94bis (Prokofiev)
Visions fugitives, Op 22 (Prokofiev)
Waltz  
Winter Bonfire, Op 122 (Prokofiev)
Zdravstvuy! 'Greetings!'