Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No 1 in D major, Op 25 'Classical' (1917)
Gavotte: Non troppo allegro
Finale: Molto vivace
Prokofiev claimed that his music possessed five principal manners: the classical, the lyric, the modern, the motoric, the grotesque. Though it is quite obvious to which category the first of his seven symphonies belongs, the classicism announced by its title is more a matter of witty pastiche than of anything more creatively ambitious. The work is not, despite Prokofiev’s declared aims for it, a symphony such as Haydn might have written, had he been still alive to do so. Haydn, by then, would have been writing very differently from (and probably more Mahlerishly than) the composer of the twelve superb London symphonies. Prokofiev’s own music in any case was of a sort that seethed with change. Having reached a state of ferocious grotesquerie in his Suggestion Diabolique of 1908, he anticipated the “ten days that shook the world” in 1917 with the airy lyricism of the First Violin Concerto in the summer of that year. In the dissonant context of his Scythian Suite, which in 1914 had been his answer to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, his Classical Symphony was just a joke, albeit an extremely good one, which today’s audiences continue to relish.
If Prokofiev’s intentions in writing this were really, as he later admitted, to “tease the geese,” then he succeeded admirably. Teasing was always a Prokofiev speciality. So although the music could never be mistaken for Haydn, nor for anything other than what it was, its sense of comedy proved unmistakable and its pellucid use of a classical-sized orchestra marvellously adept. Its popularity was assured from the start, and the work soon established itself as a classic in its own right.
It begins cleverly, as Mozart or Haydn would instantly have recognised, with a fake Mannheim rocket - a call to attention pioneered by Bavaria’s brilliant eighteenth-century orchestra based in that city. The main theme, deftly unfurled, leads to a second theme involving neat grace-notes from the violins in their upper register and soft downward leaps requiring the most precise articulation. Mannheim rockets continue to explode while Prokofiev assembles (with some modern modulations) his equivalent of a classical first movement, making the most of his dapper material until the music has run its traditional course.
The machine-tooled angularity of the slow movement, with its quietly tripping rhythm, sounds very much the cool essence of Prokofiev at a time when Russia was in political tumoil. A Prokofievian gavotte is substituted, with further angularity, for the expected classical minuet, but quickly makes way for a nimble finale which fizzes along with unswerving momentum.
© Conrad Wilson
Programme note to follow
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op 21 (1800)
Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
Andante cantabile con moto
Menuetto: Allegro molto, e vivace
Adagio - Allegro molto e vivace
Mendelssohn was just sixteen when he composed his sensational String Octet and Mozart nineteen when he transcended boyhood felicity in his G major Violin Concerto, K216, suddenly producing one of his first real masterpieces. Beethoven, however, waited until he was almost thirty before unveiling his First Symphony, which holds a similar position in his output. It was a work that changed the face of music. Eight years earlier, his benefactor Count Waldstein had persuaded him to leave his native Bonn and settle in Vienna, where he would "receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn". The phrase was nicely turned, even if what Beethoven received from Haydn's hands was no more than a bit of tuition which seemed not to have greatly pleased either of them.
On the other hand, what he received from the city where Haydn still lived and Mozart had recently died was inspirational encouragement of a sort which, within a few years, set him on course to produce the greatest, most vanguard symphonies of his time.
Though much of his Symphony No 1 was clearly modelled on Haydn and Mozart, the unmistakable sounds of Beethoven’s audacity and originality were apparent in the very opening bars, whose disorientating modulations (provocatively side-stepping the symphony’s home key of C major) must have perplexed the audience who attended its Viennese premiere, conducted by the composer in a vast benefit concert in April 1800. Since this was Beethoven’s first public concert in his adopted city, the shock waves were surely all the greater. C major, for Beethoven, was never the simple key it was traditionally thought to be, and as his C major piano concerto of the same period similarly underlined. Both works supply that mixture of robust energy and romantic tenderness, of serenity and explosiveness that were to be the hallmark of all his later music.
So if, as Edinburgh's distinguished musical essayist Sir Donald Tovey suggested, the First Symphony represents "Beethoven’s fitting farewell to the eighteenth century," it is by no means merely retrospective. Though he composed it for the same classical-sized orchestra for which Haydn scored his last symphonies, its novelty value and wealth of ideas - evenly spread through each of the four movements - were immediately recognised.
Thus the first movement’s off-key opening leads to a startlingly punchy allegro, filled with sudden key changes and detached, hammered rhythms. The blend of woodwind and string tone in the andante may sound Mozartian, but the persistent soft tapping of the kettledrums - a sensational effect in 1800 - could only be Beethoven. The taut, urgently syncopated minuet is already a Beethoven scherzo in all but name, with a witty interplay of wind chords and string scales in the concentrated trio section. After this model of brevity, the rondo finale echoes the opening movement with a slow introduction, each phrase groping its way teasingly towards the succeeding allegro, and showing how Beethoven could bring his own sense of humour to a trick of a kind Haydn enjoyed. Scales, so often a feature of this work, play a last special part in the coda to this movement.
© Conrad Wilson
A perfect concert for a summer’s evening: the SCO and the wonderful Dutch director / violinist, Isabelle van Keulen, perform some of classical music’s most popular works. Prokofiev nurtured a secret hope that his symphony would turn out to be a classic and, of course, it has. It’s followed here by Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto, performed by the SCO’s Maximiliano Martín, and Beethoven’s First Symphony.
Tickets available from Eden Court Box office, Bishops Road, Inverness IV3 5SA 01463 234234 www.eden-court.co.uk