Now that another year’s round of Christmas carols has passed, and all the paper hats and streamers have been packed away, concert-halls can return to their normal routine of delivering music in a more conventional way.
First off the blocks is Symphony Hall, dusting itself down after all the seasonal jollifications to host the CBSO tonight at 7.30pm, with Andris Nelsons conducting a truly wonderful programme designed to bring us back down to earth and simultaneously raise our spirits in a totally different direction.
We begin with Prokofiev’s First Symphony, an utterly enchanting work, and one which from its birth has always been known as the Classical. Who better than the composer himself to explain, as he does in an autobiography of his earliest years published in a commemorative anthology in the Soviet Union not long after his death on the same day as Josef Stalin in 1953:
“I spent the summer of 1917 in the country near Petrograd, all alone. I deliberately did not take my piano with me, for I wished to try composing without it. Until this time I had always composed at the piano.”
And by this time Prokofiev already had some impressive scores under his belt, including the opera The Gambler and the ballet Ala and Lolli for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, from which came the punchy Scythian Suite.
“I had been toying with the idea of writing a whole symphony without the piano,” Prokofiev continues. “I believed that the orchestra would sound more natural. That is how the project for a symphony in the Haydn style came into being.
“It seemed to me that had Haydn lived to our day he would have retained his own style while accepting something of the new at the same time. That was the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the classical style.
“And when I saw that my idea was beginning to work, I called it the Classical Symphony: in the first place because that was simpler, and secondly, for the fun of it, to ‘tease the geese’, and in the secret hope that I would prove to be right if the symphony really did turn out to be a piece of classical music.
“I composed the symphony in my head during my walks in the country.”
Interestingly, the first part of the symphony Prokofiev composed was its third movement, the Gavotte (despite the fact that a real classical symphony would have had a minuet at this point), a splendid, angular piece of writing which he would use again 20 years later in Romeo and Juliet (and the CBSO and Andris Nelsons will be giving us excerpts from that ballet at Symphony Hall on January 15 and 16).
Quite rightly, Prokofiev doffed his cap to Haydn, but the composer he loved the most was Mozart. Both of them were pianist-composers, and in his pellucid Piano Concerto no.3 Prokofiev comes close to paying a subconscious homage to his great predecessor.
So Mozart’s last piano concerto, no.27 in B-flat K595, is an appropriate work with which to follow Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, and Lars Vogt, who first shot to fame when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition playing the Schumann concerto with the CBSO under Simon Rattle, is soloist tonight.
The programme ends with another work in which the piano is prominent, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, composed for Diaghilev’s ground-breaking Ballets Russes just a handful of years before Prokofiev’s Ala and Lolli.
Many commentators argue that this teeming, kaleidoscopically colourful work is more difficult to bring off in terms of texture and balance than Stravinsky’s notorious Rite of Spring of a couple of years later. What is certain is that it is a virtuosic orchestral showpiece depicting the dark events lying behind a winter fair in St Petersburg.
And in its earlier movements it is also a virtuosic showpiece for the piano. Petrushka in fact first glimmered in Stravinsky’s mind as a Konzertstuck (concert-piece) for piano and orchestra, but gradually morphed into this wonderful ballet score. As the movements progress, the prominence of the piano diminishes spectacularly, though it remains there as an orchestral vamper right towards the end.
The ending is chilling and macabre, and I’m sure it was an influence upon Elgar’s orchestral portrait of Falstaff. Petrushka is a puppet, Falstaff is a bit of a self-aggrandising clown; they both perish in bleak circumstances, and the soundworld is remarkably similar. And Elgar probably heard Petrushka when it was performed in London in 1911, two years before he composed Falstaff.
If you want to learn more about Petrushka, Andris Nelsons and the CBSO are repeating it on Saturday (January 11, 7pm), when it will be preceded by Paul Rissmann’s “Tuned In” presentation bringing the ballet to life with illustrations and anecdotes.
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