Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Burned-Out Firebrand

Under Michael Tilson Thomas the San Francisco Symphony has begun a tradition of ending every season with a "mini-festival" of about a week's worth of concerts all around a common theme. This season the theme is Russian Firebrand, Russian Virtuoso: The Music of Prokofiev. In many ways the event could not have been better timed. Only last month Orlando Figes wrote an extended piece about Prokofiev based on reviewing the texts of his diaries, the earliest portions of which have now been translated into English and published by Cornell University Press. The theme of the "mini-festival" was further unified around the five piano concertos, which were apportioned out to four piano soloists as follows (according to concerto number):

  1. Ilya Yakushev
  2. Vladimir Feltsman
  3. Yefim Bronfman
  4. Ilya Yakushev
  5. Mikhail Rudy

All of the pianists, except for Bronfman, also participated in pre-concert recitals, the first of which also included Alexander Barantschik playing the first violin sonata with Feltsman.

There is no question that Prokofiev's piano music shows him at his most virtuosic, but was he really a "firebrand" or was he more like that old joke about the monorail, "an idea of the future whose time has passed." He certainly found himself in the right place at the right time for music revolutions. Indeed, as Figes points out, his most influential teacher, Tcherepnin, was Diaghilev's first choice for the composer of "The Firebird" for the Ballets Russes. However, Tcherepnin withdrew from that project; and Diaghilev turned to Lyadov, Glazunov, and finally Stravinsky. Had Diaghilev not "discovered" Stravinsky through this turn of events, one has to wonder if Karsavina would then have been featured in "Petrushka," which, in turn, would lead to Nijinsky getting his "Rite of Spring" project. If we want to use a noun like "firebrand," then, in reviewing the history of music in the twentieth century (or at least the first half of the century), then there is little disagreement that "The Rite of Spring" was the mother of all firebrands! Even Stravinsky recognized this, and what makes his life so interesting is how he could keep going down new roads rather than trying to rework past achievements.

Alas, Prokofiev is an entirely different bowl of borscht. If his piano music is any indication, he must have been an awesome performer. Nevertheless, Figes suggests that the reason Prokofiev chose to leave the United States in favor of Stalinist Russia is that he felt he could not compete with Rachmaninoff. This may not say anything about talent, but it may say something about not knowing how best to exploit a situation. So, just as Prokofiev's teacher was driven into obscurity by the young upstart Stravinsky, Prokofiev may just have been bested by those with more talent for Isaiah Berlin's version of "Political Judgement."

On the other hand, in spite of all the good intentions behind the "mini-festival," talent may have been a factor in the rather dismissive attitude we have towards Prokofiev's compositions today. Of the five concertos the third is really the only one that gets regular performance, and it probably has the most compositional coherence. The fourth was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I; but Wittgenstein wanted nothing to do with the piece after he saw it. The grinding repetition that opens the first may have been provocative in 1911; but to today's post-minimalist ears it is just flat-out tedious. On the other hand the fifth is structured in five movements, each of which is to brief to every show the signs of development that have made San Francisco audiences such Mahler fanatics. What remains, unfortunately, are massive eruptions of sound. I doubt that the bass drum player has ever been busier than he has been with this cycle of concerts. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to discover that there was no timpani part in the Kijé suite. However, since this was film music at a time when film sound was pretty crude, it may just have been that Prokofiev realized that timpani pitches would not register on a soundtrack, just as the rawness of his Alexander Nevsky score had a lot to do with what film viewers could actually hear.

Perhaps the film projects were the best expressions of Prokofiev's compositional talents. Perhaps he was better as a problem solver, dealing with the fact that the medium of film was so radically different from the medium of the concert hall. Perhaps, also, Eisenstein gave him the projects that most stimulated his creativity. So, if we end up remembering Prokofiev only through the lens of film history, we may appreciate him more than if we try to pit him against Stravinsky or, for that matter, even Rachmaninoff.

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