In 1923 Prokofiev’s travels took him to Paris, the capital city of 20th century European music. French audiences were already familiar with his works: at his concerts Prokofiev had eagerly performed the music of another émigré – Serge Koussevitzky, who following the Russian Revolution took his stormy concert and printing activities to Europe and America.
Under Koussevitzky’s baton there were performances of Seven, They Are Seven, Scythian Suite, the First Violin Concerto and the Second Piano Concerto, and later came highlights from the as yet incomplete The Fiery Angel. On arriving in Paris, Prokofiev, delighted by the response of the public which was not afraid of the natural and Scythian music, decided to compose his symphony As Hard as Iron and Steel. It was concluded in 1925 following “nine months of frenzied toil” which was dedicated to Koussevitzky, who performed it on 6 June that same year. The result of the long and intense work proved too complex even for Parisian audiences and the premiere met with a cool response. The symphony has remained one of Prokofiev’s most rarely performed works.
The Second symphony has an unusual construction – it consists of just two movements. The First is a sonata allegro in the “iron music“ that one can hear in Stravinsky and the urbane French Le Six and the music of Prokofiev himself, shortly after completion of the ballet Le Pas d’acier which was acclaimed for its constructivism. The second movement is in the form of variations. After all the dissonant accumulations of the first movement, their theme is distinctly simple and diatonic. Prokofiev wrote it in Japan in 1918. In the six subsequent variations following the theme, the theme itself becomes at times mockingly humorous, at times peculiar, at times otherworldly lyrical, at times with fearful culminations bringing back to mind images of the first movement. The coda, in which the theme resounds in its initial form, brings peace and resolution.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Symphony is connected with his opera The Fiery Angel after the eponymous novel by Valery Bryusov. The opera was completed in 1927 and was never performed on the stage during the composer’s lifetime. In 1928 Prokofiev reworked the music of the opera, transforming it into a symphony. Such cases had already occurred with Prokofiev’s music, though previously he composed suites based on theatre music without making any significant changes. Here, however, the themes of the opera were to be developed in a fully symphonic manner.
The gloomy mysticism that reigns throughout the opera casts its shadow on the symphony too. The work opens with a frenzied and challenging theme that later comes back in the culminations of the third and fourth movements. The principal and secondary themes of the first movement are linked with images of the spirit-possessed Renata and Sir Ruprecht. The chorale of the strings at the start of the second movement refers to the final act of the opera in which Renata seeks peace and retreats to a convent. The music of the scherzo has an infernal quality; the tremendously evil sound is created by timbre effects of the string section which is divided into thirteen voices. The grandiose finale combines a whirlwind-like movement of sound massifs with rhythms of a funeral procession and the mystical “sound of silence” in the middle movement.
The First Piano Concerto (1854–1859) emerged from sketches for a sonata for two pianos when Brahms understood that the work was not at all chamber-like in terms of its scale. The composer restored a heroic image to the soloist, whom Romantics had so often presented as a martyr. No self-will and no rubato: the first piano solos are accompanied by measured accents of the trumpets and kettle drums. These subside only when the soloist begins a new theme – in the character of a triumphant hymn.
The composer himself said of the second section that it was a portrait of Clara Schumann, while the first theme in the manuscript is marked with the words “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” The theme of the finale is in the Hungarian manner. A similar theme was to come in the finale of the Double Concerto, secondary themes in the Fourth Symphony and in the finale of the Second Piano Concerto – the composer of the Hungarian Dances was true to his passions.
The form of the finale is stern and commensurate. As a concert pianist, Brahms gave the soloist only brief cadenzas. Unfortunately, the first audience in Leipzig did not see any virtuoso skill in Brahms’ original technique. The premiere was a fiasco and ruined the young composer’s relationship with his publishers Breitkopf und Härtel. On the other hand, Brahms quickly found himself another publisher – Friedrich Simrock, and the rest is history...