Hyperion Records

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 58
begun in 1932 at the request of Gregor Piatigorsky; first performed in 1938 by Lev Berezovsky under Alexander Melik-Pashayev

'Prokofiev: Cello Concerto & Symphony-Concerto' (CDA67705)
Prokofiev: Cello Concerto & Symphony-Concerto
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67705 
Movement 1: Andante
Movement 2: Allegro giusto
Movement 3: Tema: Allegro – Interludio: L'istesso tempo – Variations 1-3 – Cadenza – Interludio II – Variation 4 – Reminiscenza – Coda

Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 58
Most composers, having refashioned a work to their liking, rarely expect the original to be resurrected—even if posterity decides differently, as in the case of Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony or the challenging first version of Sibelius’s Symphony No 5. Prokofiev made it quite clear he felt otherwise about two problem works of the 1930s, the Fourth Symphony and the Cello Concerto, by giving their differently proportioned successors a new opus number as well as ultimately—in the case of the Concerto—a significantly different name (and the translation of the Russian ‘Symphoniya Kontsert’ should certainly be ‘Symphony-Concerto’, as Mstislav Rostropovich insisted, rather than the slightly misleading ‘Sinfonia Concertante’ à la Haydn or Mozart).

Prokofiev was in any case, like Rossini, an inveterate reuser of themes, but invariably enriched them in translating them from one work to another. The case of the First Cello Concerto and the Symphony-Concerto is, however, complicated by the different worlds in which each was born. Until now, the perception of the composer in the mid-1930s has been dominated by one all-too-plausible image—that of the homesick composer who found himself drained of inspiration in the West and needed his native Russia in order to carry on writing music. As letters and diaries reveal, though, that picture is far from accurate. Work and the impetus for it had by no means dried up in Western Europe or the USA; Prokofiev had endured reversals of fortune before, and the latest problems—the great depression in America, the clouds gathering in Germany—might right themselves as they had in the 1920s. The Soviet Union, in the end, proved more enticing because it seemed as if composers, and the time they needed to produce masterpieces, were now being properly valued. Moving from Paris to Moscow, as Prokofiev decisively did in 1936, would mean an adjustment to a more straightforward form of musical expression, but this coincided happily with his own thoughts on a new and original strain of melodic writing in his music.

It is certainly not true that he had abandoned this melodic strain in his works for Western consumption; he simply expected his audience to listen harder until, as he later put it, ‘the outlines of a real face’ emerged. This is true of the piano concertos Nos 4 and 5, the complex Symphonic Song—for which he risked the unfavourable reception of a Moscow premiere in 1934 because the French orchestras were not up to scratch—and the Cello Concerto. Thanks to the recent publication of Prokofiev’s extensive diaries, we can now pinpoint its roots. As his entry for 22 May 1932 tells us, the ‘fine cellist’ Gregor Piatigorsky came to see him in his Parisian apartment:

Piatigorsky very much wishes me to compose a concerto for him, and begs to play it everywhere. I already have a plan (and themes) for a Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra. If Piatigorsky could stump up the money, I’d do it … He brought his cello and played the Ballade [Prokofiev’s only other work for the instrument, composed with piano accompaniment back in 1912] with me, very well.

Record of progress on the Cello Concerto is hazy, but certainly by 1934 Prokofiev had put it aside; when his friend and fellow-composer Myaskovsky asked him how it was going that August, he bluntly replied that it was ‘as before in a state of somnolence’. So it remained until 1938, by which time Piatigorsky for reasons unknown had slipped out of the reckoning and the completed Concerto was given its first performance in Moscow with Lev Berezovsky as the soloist and Alexander Melik-Pashayev conducting.

That such a private, sometimes enigmatic work could be heard at all in the year of the heroic film score Alexander Nevsky is surprising. Like the Symphonic Song, it was hardly clear-cut Soviet material, and after its unsuccessful premiere, Prokofiev turned his darkest, most private thoughts inwards to chamber and instrumental music. He remained convinced, as he later told his Soviet biographer Israel Nestyev, that ‘the indifference to it is mere stupidity’. The full score remained unpublished but later a rising star barely in his twenties, Mstislav Rostropovich, found a copy with piano accompaniment and impressed the composer with his performance in December 1947. As Rostropovich remembered from their backstage encounter: ‘Prokofiev told me that after listening carefully to the Concerto he had decided to rewrite it. I reminded him of this each time I met him after that, but without success.’ What followed, in fact, was a completely new work—the Sonata for cello and piano Op 119—and the premiere of that, with Rostropovich eloquently partnered by Sviatoslav Richter (a recording survives), finally persuaded the now-ailing composer to the revision of his Concerto.

So began a two-year collaboration and a friendship that made an immeasurable impact upon the young cellist. Rostropovich spent long stretches of the summers of 1950 and 1951 at Prokofiev’s dacha in Nikolina Gora outside Moscow, absorbing every possible trait of the master’s character and habits as he worked on technical detail in the cello part and played through the results. As his fellow-cellist Alexander Ivashkin has demonstrated, Rostropovich saw to it that passages in the revision which sound fiendishly complicated lie more easily under the soloist’s fingers than the more awkwardly written original Concerto. Prokofiev initially called this work his Cello Concerto No 2: surely a strange title for a piece which shares nearly all its material with its predecessor, however transformed—but after the 1952 premiere, with Rostropovich as soloist and Richter trying his hand as a conductor, he honed it still further as the Symphony-Concerto. He never lived to hear his final thoughts in performance.

The far less frequently performed Cello Concerto will sound familiar to many listeners, but distorted and at times unclear—through a glass darkly, as it were. The Symphony-Concerto blends a relatively clear-cut form alongside terrors and dissonances remarkable enough for the early 1950s; its prototype is a true child of Prokofiev’s leaner but no less authentic 1930s self. The opening four-note figure common to both works is also the ostinato against which the heroine feels the effect of Friar Laurence’s deathlike potion in the ballet Romeo and Juliet, composed in 1935, the year after Prokofiev temporarily abandoned the Concerto. Above it, the cellist’s E minor theme is typical of the ‘new melody’ the composer was exploring in the early 1930s—easy to grasp at first, but soon wandering into unexpected territory. Already, in the Symphony-Concerto, we can hear how Prokofiev ballasted it to more direct melodic effect, and perhaps more conventionally how he pre-empts the Concerto’s second, more forthright C major idea with the descending theme of the original dreamlike coda—presumably deemed too attractive a lyrical idea in the 1950s to throw away on a slow dissolve which weakens the soloist’s determination.

Little more than a striking introduction in the Cello Concerto, the opening movement takes on a more decisive shape, complete with a more emphatic climax, in the Symphony-Concerto. The relative length and importance of the two succeeding dramas, on the other hand, is reversed. In the Concerto’s central scherzo, some kind of fight ensues; but it is less pronounced and protracted than the Symphony-Concerto’s reign of terror, and we notice by contrast how much more important are the woodwind solos in the selectively scored original (no trombones, as in the Violin Concerto No 2 of 1935). The cello’s lurching, slightly macabre scherzo theme in the Symphony-Concerto is new: Rostropovich says it was when Prokofiev ‘discovered’ it to fit against the original material that he knew he wanted to start afresh. Much can also be learnt by comparing the restless accompaniment and presentation of the Concerto’s most emotional melody, molto espressivo, with its newly ennobled and deeply moving role in the Symphony-Concerto; note, too, the original disconsolate aftermath led by the wan flute, which was to disappear from the revision. Typically, too, where the Symphony-Concerto’s scherzo battles to an exhilaratingly sinister conclusion in which the full brass ensemble plays its threatening part, the original grinds to a helpless impasse.

The confident melody which follows without a break seems at first to help it out; but this is not to be the relatively robust finale of the later work, with its comically tuneful central contrast (contestedly a parody of a popular song by party hack Zakharov; Prokofiev provided an alternative, but most performers including Alban Gerhardt prefer the original). In the Concerto, two pale and, at first hearing, elusive interludes obstruct the progress of the four variations; before the second interlude a cadenza of hair-raising difficulty sounds in need of a Rostropovich to help out on matters of practical advice. The original denouement seems to face the spirit of despair, bringing back the dreams and depression of the first movement as well as the devil of the scherzo. How different this is from the manic final conflict of the Symphony-Concerto, which retreats into dreams with the theme before battling the scherzo’s spectres and apparently escaping them in the last bars with a final flight into the stratosphere: a real leap of faith for a frail Prokofiev in the early 1950s. Although this is undeniably more exciting, the original surely remains a truthful portrayal of Prokofiev’s uncharacteristic indecision during the riven 1930s. We are lucky to have them both.

from notes by David Nice © 2009

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Details for CDA67705 track 3
Tema: Allegro – Interludio: L'istesso tempo – Variations 1-3 – Cadenza – Interludio II – Variation 4 – Reminiscenza – Coda
Recording date
5 September 2008
Recording venue
Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Prokofiev: Cello Concerto & Symphony-Concerto (CDA67705)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: September 2009
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