Prokofiev 15 Visions fugitives, Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 1 "Classical"

Ilya Grubert, violin
Constantine Orbelian
Moscow Chamber Orchestra

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1, Op. 19 / 20:56
rom 20 Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (arr. for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai) / 17:54

1917, the year of the First Violin Concerto, the 'Classical' Symphony and the completion of the Visions fugitives, was a significant one for Prokofiev: not somuch for the revolutionary upheavals which were soon to drive him abroad, but rather in that it marked the first culmination of his lyrical genius. Of the four lines along which the composer of the 1941 autobiography considered his work to have developed -- the classical, the modern, the toccata or 'motor' line and the lyrical -- the last certainly took the longest to be noted. And its first blossoming could not be stressed by the loyal Soviet composer in 1941: instead he had to admit that the febrile spirit of the February revolution had had little immediate impact on his music, and to claim the half-minute of frantic pianistic activity in the nineteenth of the Visions fugitives -- one of the five left untouched by Barshai in his string transcriptions -- as reflecting 'the feeling of the crowd rather than the inner essence of the revolution.'

The two most familiar works on this disc, however, were completed in productive isolation. Begun as a Concertino in 1915 and unperformed until 1923, when a modish Parisian audience dismissed it as 'Mendelssohnism and the like', the First Violin Concerto was orchestrated during a river journey Prokofiev took to Siberia furing the turbulent spring of 1917. 'The [river] Kama is wild, virginally pure and incredibly beautiful here', he wrote at the time, and the same could be said for the long, silk-spinning melody dreamed up by the soloist in the first few bars (in fact, it belongs to the `915 sketches incorporated into the work). its transformations during the course of the Concerto are especially magical: the first features the theme on flute against harp and solo violin towards the end of the opening movement, while the second involves an even more elaborate filigree texture emerging from the conflicts of the finale.

Elsewhere the Concerto bears the stamp of Prokofiev's barbed enfant terrible characteristics. The scherzo runs wild with every conceivable effect for the soloist -- pizzicato, harmonics, spiccato (or staccato bowing) and sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge of the instrument) -- as well as imaginative orchestral strokes such as rushing clarinet figurations, pulsing horns and baleful tuba. The opening of the finale, with its curious tension between the violinist's cantabile melody and the dry, tick-tocking accompaniment looks forward to the ambiguous slow movement of the Second Violin Concerto, composed nearly twenty years later under very different circumstances.

Forthright waspishness plays an even smaller part in the Visions fugitives, which Prokofiev looked back on as initiating a 'softening of temper' in 1915 following the conscious modernism of the Sarcasms (also for solo piano) and the colossal barbarisms of the Second Piano Concerto. The title (in Russian Minolyotnosti, 'transiences') suggests the introspection to which these short, elliptical impressions most often incline and is drawn from lines by a poet whose words Prokofiev had already set to music in several songs, Konstantin Balmont:

In every fugitive vision
I see whole words;
They change endlessly
Flashing in playful rainbow colours.

The withdrawn quality is beautifully preserved in Rudolf Barshai's arrangement of fifteen out of the twenty pieces, made in 1962 for his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The lyrical heart of the series remains Prokofiev's No. 8 (seventh in Barshai's sequence), where the simple melody gains extra expressive impact on its return by the delayed appearance of the first violins. Elsewhere, Barshai is rightly careful not to unleash string effects for their own sake, though the rushing middle section of No. 4 in this guise is surprisingly prophetic of the slithery spirit-raising in the infernal opera The Fiery Angel. Otherwise, the music virtually scores itself; what could be more fitting, or more spellbinding, than the dialogue of upper and softest lower strings at the beginning?

The piano as a vehicle for first compositional thoughts played no part in the 'Classical' Symphony; Prokofiev left his own instrument behind when he left Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was by this time known) for the country in the summer of 1917. Its absence was an important factor, he later relected, in the strength of the Symphony's inspirations:

...until this time I had always composed at the
piano, but I noticed that thematic material
composed without the piano was often better.

Another was the resolution to follow the teachings of the only professor of composition at the Petrograd Conservatory he had truly respected, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and make his own exercise in the style of Haydn. Homages to the eighteenth century were to proliferate in his music, especially in the stage works; but none are as pure in their intentions. Prokofiev was at pains to stress that it was, after all, an exercise not to be repeated, noting his differences with Igor Stravinsky in the early 1920s: 'I didn't approve of taking over another composer's style as one's own. I...had written a "Classical" Symphony, but only in passing.'

Whatever the nature of the consequences, the homage to Haydn is affectionate, the orchestral palette clean and clear -- mostly spry dialogues between strings and wind, though the brass does bring us forcefully into the twentieth century in the first movement development. Prokofiev wrote the famous Gavotte, later to be protracted beyond its natural length as exit-music for the guests in Romeo and Juliet, in 1916, following it up with the first movement and the limpid Larghetto, and reflecting the untroubled sunshine of that 1917 summer holiday in the high spirits of the finale. His last good-humoured tribute to eighteenth-century manners was to go through the last movement and free it of every minor chord.

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