Post-concert Prokofian thoughts and great composer rivalries

The big topic of conversation this week has been the 5th and final Prokofiev Piano Concerto, which I conducted on Saturday night with Daniel de Borah and the Surrey Mozart Players. Many of you will have already seen the review, which came out yesterday.

The reviewer was quite right to point out the incredible difficulty of the piece- the last time I saw it performed it was with a leading recording orchestra and a world class soloist and it didn’t go so well, so it was a project we undertook with a sense of responsibility and caution. We worked extremely hard on it in rehearsals, and I know the musicians put in a lot of hours at home. From a conducting point of view, the main difficulty is in managing the countless abrupt changes of mood while giving the players the confidence to navigate their way through a piece demanding absolutely razor-blade sharp precision- it is virtuoso music for everyone on stage, not just the soloist. The first movement is already extremely tough, but its reworking as the Toccata third movement is almost absurdly hard to play, and allows almost no room for error. That said, I can’t even begin to tell you how fun it is to conduct.

I’ve said here many times that the 2nd Prokofiev Piano Concerto is the greatest 20th c. work for piano and orchestra. I’m sticking to that- Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor is the Greatest Work for Piano and Orchestra of the 20th Century, but the 5th is without a doubt the work of an even greater composer, and an even more brilliant composer for the piano. The working out of ideas, the incredibly dense weaving of moods and characters, the surprisingly huge range of emotions from outright hilarity to deep, deep tragedy all point to this being the work of a master at the top of his craft, his technique much more seasoned for the decades that separate it from the 2nd. The piano writing is beyond brilliant- only a virtuoso could have written it, because it is taking the possibilities for 2 hands and 10 fingers about as far as you can go. Still, the 2nd is a more personal and more moving human document- to put it in somewhat simplistic terms, the 2nd is Prokofiev’s heart, broken into a million pieces by the suicide of his friend, the 5th is Prokofiev’s brain, overflowing with wit, craft, logic and creativity. Both are astounding documents, but the 2nd is more devastating and more cathartic.

The reviewer made a brief reference to the difference in style between this concerto and his more famous music from Romeo and Juliet. The two pieces certainly don’t sound that much alike- the 5th has a ferocity and an edge of danger missing from R&J, but the theme of the 1st mvt and Toccata of the Concerto could easily have been a stand-in for the music he used for the Child Juliet. As a melody, it is Prokofiev at his most misleadingly naïve and straightforward- his ruthless, meticulous and complete dissection of that sweet and simple melody is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece.

Before the concert, Daniel and I were chatting and he mentioned the difficulty of the orchestral writing as comparable to that of Strauss, but Strauss’s music is infinitely easier to put together for an orchestra than Prokofiev’s. Strauss’s music is athletic, no doubt, but he also knew each instrument’s capabilities so intimately that whether you’re a violinist or a horn player, once you’ve practiced the part and sorted out a good fingering, it’s always playable and somehow feels natural and comfortable to play. Prokofiev, on the other hand, seems to need to leave things a bit ungainly for the poor players. Those quintessential leaps in his melodic ideas, whether the hops up and down the keyboard or violins in the Concerto or the minor ninths in the slow movement of the 5th Symphony never get much easier.

Shostakovich had some unkind words for Prokofiev’s skill as an orchestrator, but I can’t see how you could simplify his orchestra writing without losing the very originality and pungency that makes his music so compelling. I like the Shosty-Proko rivalry. Although men of different generations, they remain one of the great musical twosomes of all time, right up there with Haydn and Mozart and Bruckner and Mahler.

Somehow, these twosomes always have the power to hear tell you something about yourself as a listener or musician, because chances are that whatever your preferences are are as good an indicator of where your won blind spots are, as of the strengths and weaknesses of the two composers. I think my feelings about Mahler and Bruckner have remained pretty consistent over the years- I couldn’t live without either, but I’m drawn to each in their own ways. My love of Mahler is an all-or-nothing affair- I either listen and study his music obsessively, or leave it on the shelf for months on end, whereas I’m always in the mood for a bit of Bruckner. I was chatting via email about the two in the wake of my Mahler 5 a couple weeks ago with one of my RCICW colleagues, who offered the following Bruckner vs Mahler smackdown-

“As for your not having lived until you conduct Mahler 5, I’d say not true. Now, the one I’d like to tackle is the 6th. But, you know, Ken’s marvelous experience notwithstanding, I think I’d take Bruckner 9 over Mahler 9; Bruckner 8 certainly over Mahler 8, AB 7 over GM 7 (is there even a question?), AB 6 and GM 6 close competitors–if from different planets; AB 5 over GM 5; AB 4 only slightly after GM 4, and then my formula runs into a bit of trouble since AB 1, 2 and 3 aren’t at the level of GM 1, 2 and 3. But, in favor of Bruckner–better late than never!”

One wise conductor’s point of view. My sister (also a conductor) has no interest in doing Bruckner- she calls it “boy music,” but my wife is every bit as big (if less obsessive) a Bruckner fan as me (but she also likes beer).

The Haydn-Mozart pairing is more interesting because I think it tells you more about how limited we are in our discussions about music. If you polled music lovers, writers and players around the world, I think there’s no doubt the Mozart would come out as the overwhelming favorite of the two among the overwhelming majority of people. However, there’s just no denying the fact that, Figaro, Giovanni and the Requiem notwithstanding, Haydn is consistently a better composer than Mozart (there, I said it).  I’ve got the Requiem on my desk today, and there’s no piece in all music closer to my heart, but Haydn is a better composer than Mozart. Even Mozart’s best symphony, the Jupiter, has passages that are clunkier and more formulaic than anything in almost any mature Haydn symphony.

And the Prokofiev-Shostakovich rivalry? Well, Shostakovich has always been a love bordering on an obsession, but very much in the same all-or-nothing way as Mahler. As I get to grips with the opus 82a Chamber Symphony, which I’m doing in a few weeks, I realize I’ve not been listening to or working on his music (other than a brief fling with the 2nd Piano Concerto) in many, many months. Once I get stuck in on that piece, though, I think I’ll be sucked fully back into his world. I feel a pretty deep bond with the whole of his musical output, whereas with Prokofiev I love the specific pieces- I pretty much love every piece of his I’ve done, whether it be the Cello Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Nevsky, the concertos or Kije. It’s a different kind of connection, but a strong one nonetheless.

For the final word on the Fifth Concerto, I return to backstage conversations from Saturday night. I was planning all along to say something to the audience about the piece, the question was what? How does one convey the essence of what makes this piece so wonderful in as succinct a way as possible.

“This piece is fucking insane,” I suggested, meaning the description with the utmost affection and reverence.

In the end, the fact that we were performing in a church (and a warm and welcoming one at that) mitigated against my using that elegant summation of Prokofiev’s achievement in his last piano concerto, but I offer it here for your consideration.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Post-concert Prokofian thoughts and great composer rivalries”

  1. Erik K

    I quite literally know the Prokofiev 5th concerto zero…never heard it in my life. Gaping holes in your personal repertoire (even if only a listening repertoire) is one of the great interesting things about being a musician…I could go on and on about comparative rarities…for example: Glazunov’s Oriental Rhapsody is better than Scheherazade. Or: the Swedish Rhapsody no. 3 by Alfven is the most criminally neglected piece of music that I know. And yet, I’m not entirely sure I remember what La Mer sounds like anymore. I will certainly give this Prokofiev a listen…I agree with your thoughts on the 2nd concerto…it leaves careers in its wake.

    I wonder how much that sentiment exists regarding Mahler vs. Bruckner, because it is exactly mine as well…it’s been a good while since I’ve listened to Mahler (apart from the 5th, of course). I’ll go months listening to his complete output for the 1000th time, and then he’ll disappear for the better part of a year. I have to disagree with the symphony by symphony showdown, though…as unbelievable as Bruckner 9 is, Mahler 9 is quite possibly the best music that exists. And for all the problems people seem to have with the structure of Mahler 7, I say that I can’t fully appreciate the top-heavy structure of the Bruckner 7…and Mahler 7 will kick you apart.

    Finally, as someone who enjoys describing music in as plain a set of terms as I can muster, I fully appreciate your “fucking insane” description…it only furthers my desire to learn the concerto.

  2. Nicholas Lawson

    I certainly agree with what you say about Prokofiev’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, Op. 16. It’s one the three great masterpieces written in the last century, along with The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky) and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Bartok).

    The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5, Op. 55, is another total masterpiece, and it’s absurd that this kind of music gets so little attention.

    There are some Stravinsky works (i.e. Persephone, Cantata, Concerto for 2 Pianos, Concerto in D) that may not get enough play, but the Prokofiev masterpieces that are never heard (i.e. Chout, Fiery Angel, Sarcasms, Quintet, Symphonic Song, Ninth Piano Sonata, Ivan the Terrible, Four Etudes, Le Pas d’Acier, On the Dnieper, October Cantata, Choses en Sol, Sonatinas, Fifth Piano Concerto, Second Symphony, Sinfonietta, Thoughts, etc.) just goes on and on and on and on.

    The only conclusion I draw from this is that most of the cold war programmer fossils are fucking assholes.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Robert- you call to my attention the writings of a musicologist for whom the sweetest music is the sound of his own voice. When I hear that voice, music to the ears of the author, I find myself reminded of Beethoven “Oh friends, NOT these sounds….”

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