Spotlight on Prokofiev and Koussevitzky
The publishing house Forberg, a catalogue that now belongs to Ricordi, published some of the most important works in Russian music – such as Prokofiev’s first piano concerto and Koussevitzky’s double bass concerto. These are two works in the tradition of Russian late-Romanticism, but on the verge to modernism.
“More than 100 years after its world premiere, Prokofiev’s piano concerto still remains a fresh and unconventional virtuoso piece that both summarizes and concludes the piano concerto of the Romantic era”, says Ricordi Berlin composer Sergej Newski in his introduction.
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto no. 1
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Sergei Prokofiev wrote his first piano concerto between summer 1910 and February 1912 and performed its world premiere in Moscow on July 25, 1912. Around this same time, he finished his composition studies, during which he had composed a number of symphonic works, a piano sonata and several character pieces for piano. Prokofiev had originally conceived the concerto as two separate compositions for piano and orchestra: one was to be a concertino for students to perform, and the other was a more demanding and virtuosic piece for himself. In the end, he combined the material to create the concerto that we know today.
At the time when the piano concerto was premiered, however, it was not understood by everyone. One reviewer criticized the work as incoherent and constructed by stringing together unrelated fragments. In reality, the form of the first piano concerto was truly original and forward-looking. Prokofiev used both elements of the sonata-form and those of a complete sonata. The concerto also resembles a rondo, because the distinctive introductory material reappears in the middle and end of the piece. In his diary Prokofiev described the sophisticated and complex structure on August 18, 1912:
„After the powerful introduction in D-flat major follows the transition in C major to the main theme in D-flat major, then a secondary theme in E minor. Then, after the cadence, another theme, also in E minor, has the character of a closing theme. But after that comes a second closing theme in E major. Despite all of this, the exposition does not end here at all: after a short modulation it crashes back into the introduction theme again. (…) Now there should be the development section of the sonata, but for me, there is an entirely new theme instead: a perfect, stand-alone Andante. This is followed by a development that recalls a scherzo, based on the material of the second closing theme. Finally, the piano plays the main theme again, but this time in C major instead of D-flat major, so that it sounds fresher. (…) Later the secondary theme and the closing theme appear alternately, and a transition leads back to the introductory theme that completes the work.“
With his first piano concerto, Prokofiev anticipates various formal techniques of the 20th century – like montage. More than 100 years after its world premiere, it still remains a fresh and unconventional virtuoso piece that both summarizes and concludes the piano concerto of the Romantic era.
Text: Sergej Newski
Koussevitzky: Double Bass Concerto op. 3 (1902)
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Today, Serge Koussevitzky is mostly known as a conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he served for more than 25 years and founded the Tanglewood festival. He had a strong impact on the development of classical music in the US having commissioned many works by composers of his time, including Ravel and Prokofiev. His commitment to contemporary music is continued today by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Less is known about him as a composer, however.
One of Koussevitzky’s most important works is his double bass concerto from 1902. Solo concertos for double bass are still a rarity today but Koussevitzky himself was a virtuoso of the instrument. The special charm of Koussevitzky’s composition lies in the way he transfers the sound of Russian late-Romanticism to the peculiar timbre of double bass. His concerto was clearly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and the main theme recalls that of Dvořák’s 9th symphony. In Koussevitzky’s concerto, this theme is played by a horn, which also evokes Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.
Koussveitzky’s concerto consists of three movements and is rather short - a performance takes about 17 minutes. In this concerto, expression is more important than virtuosity. The composition is characterized by lyrical melodies and yearning cantilenas. There is a special reason for its passionate and emotional sound: the work is dedicated to Natalie Ushkov, the daughter of a prosperous tea merchant. The double bass concerto was premiered by Koussevitzky with the Moscow Philharmonic on February 25, 1905 in Moscow – the same year he went on to marry Natalie.
Text: Annette Thoma