Monday 22 September 2008

Mountains, bloodclots, crashing waves and tuttis: Prokofiev

Hitherto, Heavy Soil has been reasonably resolute in its contemporaneousness. Oh yeh.

But, y'know, classical music can be heavy, too.

In proof of which, I present to you the first movement of Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto in E minor (download via YouSendIt). Sometimes it's called Sinfonia Concertante. But that's a bit poncy, innit?

As you'll hear, it's a work for solo cello and a big ol' orchestra. I'd say that this stands at the apex of cello writing.

I'd also say that it'd be an absolute arse to play.

So ... please allow me to talk y'all through it.

Points of interest (/bloodclot-inducingly superb bits)

A fantastically confident orchestral opening sets out the first theme and prepares for the cello's entry. Prokofiev channels all the orchestra's might into that first solo cello note at 0.17. How to make one single instrument sound as powerful as an orchestra. Clever.

At around 1.00-1.20: what a wonderfully angular yet somehow natural climbing melody – with its vertiginous leaps and shifts.

One of the best uses of the flute in an orchestral passage (as opposed to, um, any other passage) starting at 1.45. Shiver-inducing.

Waves crashing on a dark, rocky shore from 2.15.

Hell, this is incredibly Russian-sounding music. Like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky et al, Prokofiev is a master of orchestral colour. If you listen to much 19th-20th century Russian classical music, you will probably notice that it all sounds as though it could be a film score. This highly visual style of the Russian composers was actually called 'coloristic writing'. And was (still is) massively influential on the film composers of subsequent decades.

Fucking difficult cello lines from about 5.05 onward. This would be incredibly hard to play, take it from me. Han-Na Chang makes it sound a piece of piss, naturally. But that's hard stuff. Heavy stuff.

Get a load of that percussive cello attack going on in the semi-background at 5.38.

And notice how, throughout, themes are passed from instrument to instrument ... Call and response ... exploring and boldly juxtaposing radically different 'colours'. The sonorous resonance of the deep brass from 6.00 to 6.30 contrasting with the woodiness of the strings that's gone before.

Amazing running cello flights from 6.45 or so up to 7.30 ... another demonically difficult passage to play. Brilliant, brilliant writing.

At around 7.30, the way the sinuous, reedy, drawn out cello line is contrasted by the pizzicato (plucked) orchestra.

The fucking amazing orchestral tutti (= everyone playing at once, in a big, unified kind of way) at about 8.00, introduced fantastically by the horns, that swings us out of the shadow of a Caucasian mountain into a dazzlingly sunlit vista, before plunging us into the sudden icy drizzle of the returning second theme at 8.15. See what I mean about filmic?

... And then the beautifully unexpected resolving chord at the end – where you expect the music to sink, but instead it poignantly – brilliantly – rises.

The Grievous Pain Of Bisection

I'll close with this: do you realise how much pain it has caused me brutally to sever this brilliant work of three movements into just one for this post? This really is just the beginning.

Movement two is a tempestuous, tooth-rattlingly fast, jagged jigfit with occasional oases of almost drunkenly melancholic hiatus; and the final movement – a more stately, melodic affair, yet one replete with writhing key-changes and simmering with a fierce energy – bursts in its closing minutes into a fabulously virtuosic passage of breathlessly accelerating, manically sawing cello building to an almost impossibly torturous climax, and ending on what must actually be the highest cello note physically playable.

Hell, I'm out of breath just writing about it.


Anonymous said...

I do rather envy your ability to write about music like that, Ol' Parn. My music theory is sadly lacking, I just listens to (and plays) stuffs I likes. I am rather enjoying this piece of Prokofiev though, you're right, it's evocative indeed.

On the theme of the week, how about some jazz cello? Ron Carter plays cello on Eric Dolphy's album "Out There" (listen on, and the Chico Hamilton quintet had some nice cello action going on too. If you like that sort of thing.

Rebecca said...

"bloodclot-inducingly" - it's the kind of reference you don't see 'drawn' enough...

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