Serge PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op 58 (1933-8) [36:18]
Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op 125 (1952) [36:51]
Alban Gerhardt (cello), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, 1–5 September 2008. DDD.
HYPERION CDA67705 [73:11]
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 The work was not a success and the full score remained unpublished.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 first incarnation.
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.

John Quinn
A logical coupling of two fascinating works in splendid performances. ... see Full Review