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For the benefit of those MWI readers who aren’t aware, Gabriel Prokofiev is Serge’s grandson (his father was the artist Oleg Prokofiev, the Russian master’s younger son). Gabriel first achieved noteworthy success in 2011 with a Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra which was famously performed at the Proms (and televised) by DJ Switch and the National Youth Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. Three years later his rather Russian sounding Violin Concerto 1914 (commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) was premiered at the same festival. But it was as a DJ and producer that Gabriel Prokofiev originally became well-known, as well as his establishment of the nonclassical record label, which disseminates his own works alongside those by other composers and performers who seek to eradicate the artificial boundaries which separate ‘classical’ music from other genres. The idea of the remix, to cite one example, is central to Prokofiev’s aesthetic, and many examples feature in the nonclassical catalogue.
The present Signum release seems to be the first completely dedicated to those works of his which might be deemed (relatively speaking) to be conventionally ‘classical’. There are no electronic, production or synthetic adumbrations. Despite the rather unusual solo instruments, both concertos are fully scored and adopt four movement structures. However, the content of both involves a considerable degree of overlap between one subgenre and another while readers will apply their own subconscious stylistic associations to the words ‘saxophone’ and ‘bass drum’.
Gabriel Prokofiev’s saxophone concerto was written for Branford Marsalis who specifically asked the composer for a piece that would, above all, embrace melody. I can report that this feature is more subtly incorporated into the work than it might appear to listeners at first hearing. Meaningful, intervallic connections between notes often seem fragmentary, and imply melody rather than constitute it per se. But repeated listening makes the work’s melodic content much more explicit. Right from the start of the work, when four slow building chords generate tiny splinters of melody from Marsalis, these are eventually extended and linked. I wouldn’t describe this music as especially jazzy, but it is sufficiently cool to warrant the descriptor ’urban’. I especially like Prokofiev’s gentle incorporation of tubular bells into the texture at waypoints on this journey. There are suggestions of jazz improvisation and toward the end hints of hip-hop. But these are only fleeting; the movement as a whole is organic and logical, not remotely gimmicky. The Scherzo second movement, marked Con moto again requires the soloist to deliver these brief melodic shards, but in this case they interlock rather minimalistically with flute and percussion. Succeeding material projects some rather Latin flavours, a syncopated chamber music which, while It may not ooze melody, actually sounds rather Milhaud-y….
The slow third movement is marked Largo Mesto, and the initial sustained, lonely sax notes seem lost and pre-occupied, creating a mildly regretful, noirish atmosphere. More little half-tunes and fragments get passed around between sax, harp and the rest of the orchestra; and on first hearing the weave of this panel seems more complex than it actually is, as subsequent exposure will prove. In the Allegro Mechanico finale Prokofiev creates a Metropolis-style urban dysytopia from an opening which blends Bernard Herrmann Psycho strings and clanging kitchen cutlery sounds. Disturbingly this exciting movement was inspired by the composer’s cycle route through London’s financial district, and the shiny glassy vertical lines of its recently built high-rises. The music is strident, insistent, and rather disorientating. A wild dance breaks out amid snarling brass. The noisy conclusion perhaps owes more to house and techno than to jazz. Marsalis is his customary cool, sincere self, while the Russian orchestra play as though this strange music is in their life blood. Signum’s recording packs a real punch. My original response to this piece was that it was superbly structured, but defiantly unmemorable; music to admire rather than love. I must add, however that after a couple more hearings it has begun to grow on me….
I’m less ambivalent about Prokofiev’s earlier Concerto for Bass Drum, which I suspect is as unique a form as Prokofiev’s earlier Concerto for turntables was at the time of its first performances (not so much now as he has recently completed a second such work). Much of the success of the present piece has to do with the participation of percussion whizz Joby Burgess, with whom Prokofiev has previously worked in the realisation (and recording) of his crazy extended suite Import/Export(Suite for Global Junk). There’s some interesting description in the booklet note about the extended techniques Burgess applies to the drum, an instrument which on the face of may seem pretty one-dimensional to the majority of us. The opening movement Bass War is well-named, its opening rumbles redolent of distant fighting, explosions and thunder. Flutes and clarinets flutter tartly above sneering low brass and strings. An atmospheric wash of sound develops until it’s punctuated by unusual thuds, scrapes and roars and is stopped dead in its tracks by four bold brass chords. It’s almost like Burgess and the orchestra are attempting to give birth to ‘the beat’, and while the labour may be protracted, Prokofiev’s music emerges as visceral and exciting.
Prokofiev accurately describes the subsequent Largo Mesto (In the Steppes) as having a ‘slightly Russian feel’, but it seems to me that this is in its rather melancholy atmosphere rather than any especially Slavic melodic shape. Burgess exclusively uses hands rather than beaters in this more subdued, tentative but not undanceable music. Later in the movement the ambience becomes distinctly ominous, with weird glissandi in the deepest registers and frozen string chords. In many ways this section constitutes a primer of sonic possibilities for the hitherto unheralded solo instrument. The most overtly dance-flavoured music on this disc dominates the following movement Four to the Floor, although much of the time the throbbing beat of the drum (pitted against an off-beat in the orchestra) seems somewhat reined in. This music shares its DNA with Thomas Ades’ Asyla. As for the Allegro Brillante finale, subtitled May Speed, lazy as I might appear I really cannot surpass the composer’s pithy characterisation of its sound as “spiralling Hindemith-meets-hardcore”. This music is often rather loud and Burgess appears to be attempting to beat his instrument to a pulp. It’s a jagged, dramatic ride – before glowering, rather spectral chords lead to a false ending, and furious, final drumrolls.
There is a splendid consistency to the sound the Signum engineers have captured for both works. I don’t imagine for a minute Prokofiev would have been disappointed by the playing of the Ural Philharmonic under Alexey Bogograd, who absolutely has the measure of the composer’s singular designs. His band sound unusually well-prepared for the challenges presented by both these unconventional scores and the commitment and enthusiasm communicated by soloists and orchestra alike is palpable. I suspect that younger listeners yet to be fully convinced by what us oldies think of as classical music will find the language of this Prokofiev as accessible as their grandparents found that expressed by his illustrious grandfather in Peter and the Wolf eight decades ago. I suspect old Serge would be very proud, and I imagine he’d be tapping his feet with the best of them if he decided to tune in from above.