Kevin Rhodes takes us on a neoclassical journey of russian simplicity and textual clarity with Prokofiev’s first symphony and Tchaikovsky’s majestic serenade for strings. Yevgeny Kutik, in his first Pro Arte appearance, explores Prokofiev’s folk melodies as they reach their energetic conclusion.
By Pamela Feo
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63
Sergei Prokofiev had been away from Russia for nearly twenty years, living in the United States, and Europe, when he was approached by friends of the violinist Rober Soëtens in Paris to write a piece for him. Prokofiev had already been developing ideas for a new violin piece by this time, and readily agreed to compose something for Soëtens, who was a champion of new music. The concerto was premiered in Madrid on December 1, 1935 by the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Enrique Fernández Arbós. Prokofiev later commented that “the concerto was written in the most diverse countries: the main subject of the first movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the second movement in Voronezh, the instrumentation was completed in Baku,” which reflected his “nomadic lifestyle,” as he called it, at that point in his life. The work also reflects another major project from this time period: some passages are reminiscent of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, which Prokofiev worked on in the same sketchbooks he used for his concerto.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48
In the autumn of 1880, Tchaikovsky composed his Serenade for Strings alongside his 1812 Overture. By his own account, the latter piece was not worthy of the immense popularity it would gain and retain to this day. Commissioned to commemorate the Pushkin Memorial in Moscow, he felt uninspired, saying that he wrote it “with no warm feelings of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merits in it.” On the other hand, as he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck, his patron, correspondent and confidante, his Serenade was created “from inner conviction. . . It is a heartfelt piece and so, I dare to think, is not lacking in real qualities.” While the course of reception of the 1812 Overture would have surprised Tchaikovsky, the warm response to the Serenade’s soaring passages and tender moments corroborated his own views: at the first public performance on October 30, 1881 in St. Petersburg, the waltz movement was encored, and the following summer the piece was lauded by his former teacher Anton Rubinstein. George Balanchine would later use it as the basis for his ballet Serenade.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, “Classical”
When Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 premiered in April 1918 in St. Petersburg, audiences were surprised: the young composer, already established as a modernist who kept the critics on their toes with his radical new sounds, had chosen to emulate Joseph Haydn, of all people, adopting a Classical style which, despite his teachers’ best efforts, he had hitherto apparently rejected.