Sunday, 13 March 2016

Life can only be understood backwards…

Prokofiev completed his second piano concerto in 1913, dedicating it [after completion] to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April, shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friend Prokofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer in preparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them to Paris, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the Black Sea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk, provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approval from the more progressive.
     The orchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Opus 16, was destroyed in a fire [or at least lost], during Prokofiev’s absence from Russia after 1918, and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Diaghilev showed interest in what seemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet, eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, became the Scythian Suite, music that Glazunov found even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Diaghilev arranged a concert appearance for Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto to the expected mixed response.

In my last CSO review, I wrote that I was looking forward to Anna Shelest’s return to the Cheltenham stage “with a great deal of impatience and musical greed”: especially for her performance of “Prokofiev’s (let’s be kind, and just say ‘challenging’ – two hands may not be quite enough: although I am expecting it to look like a gentle stroll in the park, after tonight…) second concerto” – intimating, of course, that this is one of the most difficult pieces in the concert pianist’s repertoire (and that was just from my being intimidated by the amount of ink in the score).

It does have a fearsome reputation, though – which may explain its ‘underappreciation’ when compared with his more popular third concerto:

It remains one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, noted in 2011: “A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly. Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as virtuoso had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it with Ansermet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, when it had gone out of his fingers.”

One ranking – by pianist Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont – places it at the very top of “the five most difficult piano concertos” (and I thought that Brahms’ second was difficult – it only creeps in at number four…!); and, similarly, Paul Huang has this to say:

Prokofiev’s 2nd [is the most difficult piano concerto to perform] because of its 10+-minute, soul-crushing, endurance-testing cadenza. The longest in standard repertoire. It also has a notoriously difficult scherzo that lasts only 2.5 minutes or so but in which the pianist never stops playing 16th notes [semiquavers] in either hand. Not for a single rest. These notes have to be perfectly even and in unison. You can’t hide difficult parts with rubato. Make one mistake and you’re out of sync with the orchestra. You can't use pedal. Clarity is essential. Each note has to be articulated. To produce this effect is very exhausting. It requires fingers of enormous strength and stamina.

It wouldn’t surprise me, therefore, if I was not the only person in Pittville Pump Room to be experiencing (“hearing” seems far too feeble a word) this work live for the first time. But, wow, it was worth the wait! Although many at the première – coming just four months after the scandalous first performance of The Rite of Spring – obviously did not agree:

On the platform appeared a youth looking like a Peterschule student. It was Sergei Prokofiev. He sat down at the piano and appeared to be either dusting the keyboard or tapping it at random, with a sharp dry touch. The public did not know what to make of it. Some indignant murmurs were heard. One couple got up and hurried to the exit: “Such music can drive you mad!” The hall emptied. The young artist ended his concerto with a relentlessly discordant combination of brasses. The audience was scandalized. The majority hissed. With a mocking bow, Prokofiev sat down again and played an encore. “The hell with this futurist music!” people were heard to exclaim. “We came here for pleasure. The cats on the roof make better music!”
– Sergei Prokofiev: Brief Autobiography

This quite astounding work (and I mean that in a good way) – which, with its relenting pace (and absence of a true slow movement), is as much a challenge for the orchestra and conductor as it is for the soloist… – could only be by Prokofiev. And, despite the massed influences of various Russian predecessors – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, etc. – it really could only be by Prokofiev. With its use of classical structures, forms and harmonies to produce something essentially modern – indeed, this is essential Prokofiev. And at his greatest, I believe.

Here – revisiting the score, once home (and which I had open on my lap, in awe, during the concert); remembering Shelest’s incomprehensibly brilliant tour de force exposition – is my rather stunned account!

The opening Andantino lulls us into a Rachmaninov-infused sense of security. “Oh, we can sing along with this caloroso con gran espressione – it’s so beautiful”, you might say. But it soon becomes apparent that this is just a warm-up passage for both the soloist and audience. Forte arpeggios – followed by rolling hills of piano scales – produce a sense of foreboding. And a change of pace to Allegretto; and a new rhythm, repeated insistently four times – however ‘elegant’ the piano’s subsequent re-entry (to my ears, more mechanistic, more ironic…) – eventually leads to a passage of spiky ferocity. The storm has begun. And yet, there are thoughtful moments at a slower pace that can lead you astray… before, yes, the most gargantuan cadenza ever written (apparently, initially, scored for three hands – meaning much crossing of arms for Shelest) gets underway.

This is, effectively, the development section of the first movement – and yet it focuses on just the one theme: the piano’s opening Rachmaninovian melody, which soon disintegrates into powerfully-expressed exhibitionism and a momentous landscape of that dreaded black ink! And just when you think it has reached its fortississimo climatic conclusion… – with oscillating triplet semiquaver runs, over a foundation of leaping left-hand crotchets, spelling out a counter-tune (“one of the hardest places in the concerto”, according to the composer himself…) – it just keeps on going!

But Shelest handled it with aplomb: keeping that ‘hidden’ melody well-stressed and vocalized, despite the surrounding ornamentation. Immersed deep within the music (as well as the keyboard), her concentration never wavered; and, despite the ongoing acrobatics, and a collision of keys (of tonality – C# minor and D minor simultaneously – not bits of the piano falling off…), generously looked up at David Curtis, the conductor, to coordinate the orchestra’s re-entry. Although this starts softly… again, it is a trick – there is an immediate, time-compressed crescendo from piano to fortissimo; and the mayhem continues with the brass, emphatically underlined by the timpani, reiterating the very opening theme (originally lightly pronounced by the clarinets and pizzicato strings).

As always, the CSO heavyweights shook the very walls of the building. This was very much the effect they had produced in the final movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – huge blocks of fundamental, elemental sound. Two lightning cymbal strikes: and the storm is over. (But, oh, to frolic under those dark skies; feel the heavy, wakening rain on your face; be so very in tune with nature…! There is joy in the mania; there is melody in the cacophony; there is enlightenment in the punishment. This is sadomasochism in music. And, boy, it felt great…!)

But, suddenly, we revert to that gentle opening soundscape – fading, fading, fading… – and the movement (like nothing else composed before or since) is complete.

Prokofiev has been accused of lightly orchestrating a piano sonata – but that closing of the first movement, and all of the second movement – that perpetuum mobile of a Scherzo – proves those critics wrong: there is some amazing, challenging string and woodwind writing (easily conquered by the CSO, as always) either side of the piano’s trickling, twinkling torrent of constant semiquavers. It is almost as if we are following the heavy rainfall from the first movement downstream – with its sudden mood changes – as it surges towards the sea….

Again, Shelest plunged in: never once, as far as I could see, lifting her head from the keyboard; keeping perfect time, with wonderful dynamic variations ebbing and flowing. To say that she provided a metronomic beat for the orchestra implies a lack of feeling – but this was expressive playing, surmounting the technical exercise that appears in print.

Such music must also be a nightmare to conduct – despite the constant 2/4 time, there are some astonishing changes of rhythm and volume – but, whatever fear (if any) he may have felt, David Curtis made it look relatively easy. He has built trust with this orchestra – as well as with Shelest – and it shows. The occasional interjections of brass (startling trumpet entries) and threatening percussion were utterly precise; yet somehow rendered this movement less ecstatic than it initially appeared. The flying arrows of the flutes and first violins also threatened to destabilize all forward motion. But everything punched in precisely on time. A fleeting motif in the cellos and oboe (which, only later, did I realize forms the basis of yet another bruising, baleful brass exclamation in the final movement) seemed momentarily to pull things together. But, on on we go! And then we stop. Just like that. Golly. All that music; all those notes – and so little time had passed.

You would think that a slow movement would be needed, after all that – especially for the soloist. And it is. But we don’t get one. Instead, the Intermezzo is marked Allegro moderato – and the instruments are told to play pesante (not like peasants – although they might as well be – but ‘heavily’…). There is no respite. And the members of the CSO gave all they had: marching as to war.

This is Prokofiev at his most Prokoviesque, you might say – and the sprightly piano entry (surely, the poor girl deserves some sort of break after all those semiquavers?!) just adds to the menace: mocking the orchestra’s stateliness with grotesque, off-beat chords, before a solo of surprising beauty. (If the Scherzo demonstrated Shelest’s technical prowess, this allowed her to return to the emotional lyricism of the first movement.) But this is a temporary state of affairs; and the mocking resumes – although what initially appears to be a climax dissolves into a light soufflé of arpeggios and runs, and more “light orchestration”.

Shelest then has a brief – again spiky – solo, before the orchestra decides this is a game it wants to play, too. Gradually, everyone joins in; there are a couple of menacing piano trills (with phenomenally scary muted brass accompaniment); the strings refuse to stop marching – albeit in slippers. But Maestro Curtis says “No more; no more”. His authority is final.

The Intermezzo ends quietly on a very low note: so, the astonishing fortissimo opening of the Finale, five octaves higher, felt like an attack of screaming demon angels from above. What initially sounds like a sprint – with Shelest jumping manically up and down the keyboard (figuratively; or fingeratively…?) – eventually resolves into a fragmentary theme; before a tempestoso climax. The thundering gallop of chords (reminding me of the cowboy movies that my dad is addicted to…), as the music forces Shelest to look like she may spread wings (there is no way to make this music look anything but utterly impossible to play – it is so physical…) – thus leads to that brassy reclamation of the Scherzo’s mini motif.

Suddenly, everything stops. Soft discords – bell chimes – in the piano are interrupted by unrest in the lower strings (was that ‘Dies Irae’ I heard…?). For a while, then, these are joined by the clarinets and bassoons, whilst Shelest finally – finally – gets the break she deserves! But not for long.

The succeeding solo passage is a simple, wistful one of great beauty – recalling the first movement, somewhat, in what could be described almost as a ‘lullaby’. (This also reminded me of the solo pieces of Mompou – such was its grace.) The bassoons (ah, bliss!) then take up this wandering theme, as the piano elaborates, and more and more woodwind and strings join in. (It is like being sung to sleep by a full chorus… – accompanied by a gargantuan brass band…!) The piano will not let go of the tune, though. Eventually, those woodwind and strings take over: upping the pace. A dialogue ensues. This is the rush to the end, isn’t it? Yes. The end. (In fact, the most final sounding, bloody emphatic cadence you have ever heard.)

But it isn’t. More trickery. I was waiting for someone to applaud. But we were so rapt: we could see from Shelest’s physical attitude that something was about to happen.

Indeed… a momentous, moody rumination develops from her earlier bell-like discords. And – oh yes – eventually, the bassoon comes back with its lullaby – but only so that Shelest can demonstrate her pugnacious, unrelenting virtuousity. A period of development (and swaying key changes) follows, before the mist moves in. The sudden foghorn blast that ends this short, spooky passage leads to a reprise of the beginning of the movement, and the real, build-upon-build, ever-growing climax. This really is it. The end. Fabulous. Reader, I wept. Reader, I cheered!

The applause and standing ovation given to Shelest was not enough. It never could be. She had partaken in the pianistic equivalent of a triathlon – simultaneously performing all three disciplines: technique, emotion, stamina… – and won. By a huge margin. This was heroic, amazing dexterity; beautiful, moving, percussive, lyrical playing. Astounding, unflagging talent that will stay with me for ever.

I never believed I would experience this piece played live. And, now I have, I do not want the experience erased, sullied by another performance. I simply cannot imagine the replication of such concentrated musicality. Instead, I will listen to Shelest’s recording on repeat, whilst gazing longingly at the tear-stained pages of the score she so gracefully signed.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. And all I can do is say a huge thank you to those who contributed. My night – or so I believed… – had been made.

But I had, of course, forgotten Maestro Curtis, and his handfuls of magic dust. Having already sprinkled a few grains on the CSO – their wizardry a necessary component of the Prokofiev – he shook his pockets out over the stage; waved his magic baton; and headed off for redemption via Stravinksy’s awe-inspiring Firebird Suite. If the Prokofiev proved the perfect vessel for Shelest, then this was the orchestra’s – equally proving their virtuosity in all departments.

No names, tonight. All players were inspiring: alone, and in combination. Reader, my soggy handkerchief was not enough. Someone please bring me a bucket…. (And better make it a double.)

This was joyous: an exhibition of control from Curtis, and delight from the CSO. It is as challenging a score, in many ways, as is the Prokofiev for the pianist. But the orchestra luxuriated in its difficulties, producing shimmering dynamics – who knew so many instruments could make so little a sound…? – and making changes of speed instantaneously. This was their showpiece. Or should be. A little bit of a miracle to end a wonderful evening…

…which had begun with Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony – not, for me, one of his better works (and that is pretty much all I have to say on the matter – except that it was, of course, performed with as much energy and skill as everything else; conducted by a man with the happiest, most contagious grin in the Midlands – despite this being his fourth concert of the week…).

It made sense, really. If that (possibly nightmare-inducing) “lullaby” in the final movement of the Prokofiev had the insistence – and modality – of a folk song, then this was constructed from (at least) three of the real things: hence its nickname of ‘The Little Russian’. The Stravinsky, too, is folk-tune based. And so it made for a well-constructed programme – even if it was played in the reverse order of its original billing: a clever trick which made sense of the music, chronologically (sort of), and melodically.

A more ‘formal’ – and much shorter – version of this review can be found on the Gloucestershire Echo website.

By the way, I don’t really know if “crying is good for you” – it certainly feels it, to me (as it does to most): especially with music of this calibre, played so movingly, so flawlessly. Ergo, if men really are sobbing only “six to 17 times” a year (as a recent study indicates), I really do think they should start attending more high-class orchestral concerts, such as this; letting their sensitivities and sensibilities hang out; whilst perhaps channelling their inner Roy Orbison.

This was catharsis – what Aristotle might have called “the purging or purification of the emotions”, perhaps achieved through the witnessing of theatrical tragedy – of the most unalloyed, most curative kind.

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