This recording was welcomed by Brian
Wilson in its download format, when Brian praised both the
enterprise of the coupling and the excellence of the performances.
It’s particularly valuable to have Prokofiev’s first and last
thoughts on this work together on the same disc. In fact, I’m
not aware of any comparable couplings in the catalogue and though
there have been a few recordings of the Symphony-Concerto,
the First Concerto is less frequently heard. That may be in
part because, as Brian Wilson indicates – and I agree with him
- Prokofiev’s final thoughts are to be preferred.
It may be helpful to summarise the genesis of both works, for
which I’m indebted to David Nice’s very useful booklet note.
Prokofiev was first prompted to compose a cello concerto by
the great cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. That was in 1932, when
Prokofiev was living in Paris. However, work on the concerto
did not proceed swiftly and it was not completed until after
he’d returned to the Soviet Union. By that time Piatigorsky
had no involvement with the work – did he ever play it, I wonder?
– and the premičre was given in Moscow by Lev Berezovsky in
1938. The work was not a success and the full score remained
unpublished. Then in 1947 Mstislav Rostropovich performed the
work, just with piano accompaniment and, eventually, Prokofiev,
encouraged by Rostropovich, determined to revise the concerto.
The revision was by no means a swift process - according to
David Nice, Rostropovich paid lengthy visits to Prokofiev’s
dacha in the summers of 1950 and 1951 and his input into the
revision seems to have been significant. What Prokofiev entitled
his Cello Concerto No. 2 eventually emerged and was premičred
by Rostropovich in 1952. Even then the revision process was
not finished and Prokofiev made a further version of the score,
which is what we now know as the Symphony-Concerto, though
this wasn’t heard in public in his lifetime.
The musical material from the First Concerto was recycled into
the Symphony-Concerto and the listener will find many
thematic similarities between the two works. However, structurally
they are substantially different, as can be seen from the tempo
indications – and timings – for each movement in the respective
works, which I’ve deliberately included in the heading to this
review. What we have, in essence, is two closely related but
completely distinct pieces and it’s highly significant, I think,
that both have opus numbers, surely a sign that the composer
did not regard the concerto as being superseded by the Symphony-Concerto.
The structure of both works is pretty unusual though one structural
similarity is that in each case the substantial central movement
has scherzo-like material as its foundation, though neither
is a conventional scherzo. The Concerto begins with a fairly
short movement that is confident, even impassioned, in tone
though, as David Nice observes, it is “little more than a striking
introduction.” Quite a bit of play is made with a four-note
ostinato figure, which will be instantly recognisable to anyone
familiar with the ballet, Romeo and Juliet (1935). The
movement that follows opens with a long stretch of incredibly
busy music in which the soloist is prominent – in truth, the
soloist gets little opportunity for a rest in either work. There
are several sections of more lyrical material, which are sensitively
rendered in this performance, but the main impression left by
this extended movement is of athletic virtuosity.
The finale has a most odd structure. Essentially, the form is
that of theme and four variations. However, as will be seen
from the review heading, there are several other episodes, which
interrupt the conventional variation form, including a cadenza
(track 3, 6:17- 8:54) which is, in David Nice’s words, “of hair-raising
difficulty”, though it starts off innocuously enough. This finale
is an interesting movement and I like the way Prokofiev frequently
exploits the cantabile capabilities of the solo instrument.
However, the movement as a whole is somewhat episodic and discursive
and I must admit I found it hard to follow the musical argument
at times. But I look forward to exploring this movement – and
the concerto as a whole – further, especially with such expert
and persuasive guides as Alban Gerhardt and Andrew Litton.
The Symphony-Concerto seems to me to be a tauter composition
and I find it makes a stronger initial impression on the listener.
The first movement is bigger than the corresponding movement
in the Concerto and it’s bigger not just in terms of length
but in terms of its character too. The four-note ostinato figure,
carried over from the Concerto, is even more prominent this
time round. The middle movement begins and ends as a scherzo
but it’s more than a scherzo, with lyrical episodes along the
way that are highly characteristic of Prokofiev. The cadenza
comes fairly early on in the movement (track 6, from about 6:40
– 8:09) and it sounds to me to be at least as demanding as its
counterpart in the Concerto. It’s preceded by a lovely, quiet
lyrical passage. The finale presents several episodes but these
feel to be better integrated with one another than was the case
in the Concerto and the very end of the work makes for a more
convincing finish, I think, than what we heard in the score’s
Both these works make huge demands on the soloist but Alban
Gerhardt seems not just to take the manifold difficulties in
his stride but positively to relish them. He’s a commanding
presence, impressing in the many passages where breathtaking
virtuosity is required. And Prokofiev frequently writes in his
typically long-breathed lyrical vein. In these stretches, Gerhardt’s
magnificent singing tone and his ability to sustain an extended
legato line give huge pleasure. In both works he benefits from
lively, attentive support from Andrew Litton and his fine orchestra.
The recorded sound is excellent.
The picture on the front of the booklet won’t be to all tastes
– I find it hideous – but that shouldn’t put anyone off. These
two works may not be as well known as Prokofiev’s concertos
for violin or piano but they are fascinating pieces, containing
some very fine music. It’s very valuable – and logical - to
have them coupled together and these splendid performances serve
Prokofiev very well indeed.