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Programme Notes

Information for Wed 13 Jun 2007 7.30pm

Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953) Violin Concerto No 1 in D major, Op 19 (1916–17)

1 Andantino – Andante assai 2 Scherzo. Vivacissimo 3 Moderato – Allegro moderato – Moderato – Più tranquillo

Vadim Repin violin

‘How could it have happened that he did not hear the true music of the Revolution?’, asks Prokofiev’s dutiful Soviet biographer, Israel Nestyev, of his subject’s role in the crucial year of 1917. It happened because, although Prokofiev had been very much present in Petrograd, dodging the shooting, throughout the February uprising, he spent very little time in the cities during the turbulent months leading up to the yet more crucial events that October. He completed the ‘Classical’ Symphony in the country outside Petrograd that spring, and the limpid purity of Russia’s eastern rivers found its way in to the orchestration of the First Violin Concerto. The river trip was a holiday which Prokofiev the careful Soviet autobiographer would be at pains to pass over. Travelling south-west to pick up a boat along the Volga to Kazan, he decided with apparent spontaneity to explore the river Kama. His detour took him as far east as the foot of the mighty Ural mountains, home to The Stone Flower’s Mistress of the Copper Mountains. He described the scenery to his friend Myaskovsky as ‘wild, virginal and exceptionally beautiful, with its red mountainous shores covered in dark Siberian pines.’

The virginal and the beautiful aspects could certainly be applied to the opening theme of the Concerto, though it had already been sketched as the beginning of a concertino back in 1915. Its genesis remains unclear; six years later, when the work finally received its first performance in Paris on 18 October 1923, with the 18-year-old leader of Koussevitzky’s orchestra, Marcel Darrieux, as soloist, Prokofiev wrote to another musical friend, Pyotr Souvchinsky, that

‘the first movement and the finale were conceived in 1913 and executed in 1916 and now, to be sure, I’d do a lot of it very differently.’ Never mind the precise origins; what remains significant is the high degree of gentle lyricism in a relatively early work by a composer regarded, whether in 1917 or 1923, as a noise-making enfant terrible. Pure song for the soloist at the very beginning of a violin concerto was nothing new, and the Parisian audience looked down its nose at one possible source, the Mendelssohn concerto. It seems more likely that Prokofiev had taken note of the shimmering string support for the violinist in the opening bars of the Sibelius Concerto as well as the roving, seemingly improvised quality of Sibelius’s melody.

‘the harpist and soloist provide a gleaming reflection which surely owes something to the magic of that summer journey down the Kama’

His own concerto, predominantly sweet and dreamy rather than dark and dramatic like Sibelius’s, runs for some 44 bars before dissolving its profile in low, irresolute trills. At first the secondary material which follows, a gavotte rather more contorted than the familiar third movement of the ‘Classical’ Symphony, seems to come from a different world. Yet the magical negotiation back to the silk- spinning of the opening seems perfectly natural. This time the flute takes over the melody in all its pristine beauty while the harpist and soloist provide a gleaming reflection which surely owes something to the magic of that summer journey down the Kama, and the spell is cast even more wistfully at the end of the concerto.

Between these fugitive visions Prokofiev entertains his listeners and the soloist with a scherzo – the movement he liked best in 1923 – running wild with every conceivable violinistic effect: pizzicato (plucking), harmonics, spiccato (fast bouncy bowing)


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