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Gabriel PROKOFIEV (b. 1975)
Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra No 1 (2006, rev 2011) [24:23]
Cello Concerto (2012) [24:17]
Mr Switch (turntables); Boris Andrianov (cello)
Ural Philharmonic/Alexey Bogorad
rec. 2018/19, Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Hall, Yekaterinburg, Russia; Stopstart Studios, London

Having warmly welcomed Signum’s first foray into Gabriel Prokofiev’s concertante output (review) - to date he has completed seven such works - it has been good to make the acquaintance of this fine sequel, especially since it features the first recording of the extended ‘symphonic version’ of this composer’s breakthrough piece, his first concerto for turntables (a second was completed in 2016). It is coupled here with the cello concerto Prokofiev wrote for the late Alexander Ivashkin, who premiered it just eight months before his sudden and untimely death from cancer in 2014.

It is no exaggeration to describe the work for turntables as ‘epoch defining’. The composer provides an entertaining account of its development from fanciful idea to triumphant reality in the booklet. Its brief introductory movement alternates between threatening, rather Stravinskian instrumental gestures (bass drum, cymbal, bass clarinet and harsh wind/brass chords) and the by now familiar lingua franca of the turntables, whose rather rough-hewn textures convey a surprisingly melodic quality, and certainly offer potential for virtuosity and showmanship which is thoroughly exploited here by Anthony Culverwell, or Mr Switch as he is known professionally. The artist formerly known as DJ Switch has been involved in performances of the piece for well over a decade now and the elements of post-production involved in the realisation of some of the work’s electronic effects seem to have refined and clarified its overall sound. In the Adagietto section passages of staccato, scrubbing strings initiate a rather ‘noirish’ urban soundscape which is most appealing. The turntable timbres hover above and between, as a jazzy bass, tom-toms and percussive flute accentuate a smoky cityscape mien. It seems to me that one of Gabriel Prokofiev’s great strengths is his expertise at building tension and then holding back at the point of anticipated surprise. Rhythms blend and confuse before the listener clocks human sounds - those of a chattering (rave?) crowd perhaps - a gesture which launches a fiercely rhythmic, funky central panel marked Largo pesante, featuring samples seemingly drawn from an array of social activity which lend a curious and attractive ‘living’ quality to the music. This is a dazzling movement; it’s profoundly immersive and I found it impossible to avoid foot-tapping. The central section may be skittish and low-key, but Mr Switch’s heavy beats survive underneath its surface until a more overt hip-hop pulse materialises at the end.

I must reassure those who might instinctively avoid such fusions; this concerto is absolutely not a gimmick. Prokofiev’s craftsmanship is most impressive as is the playing of the Ural Philharmonic under Alexey Bogorad. The fourth movement is an Andante – it again kicks off with human breath before woodwind instruments suggest something more conventionally ‘classical’ although the weird slidings and bends between the notes in time impart a different story. The Prokofiev DNA hovers around in the string writing, and among the little woodwind ostinati, though as a fully absorbed influence it’s wisely deployed and seamlessly integrated into Gabriel P’s singular contemporary aesthetic. This movement meshes sharp staccato and eerie oscilating wind and brass chords until the DJ makes his presence felt with a slow-burning sequence of arresting, disruptive figures. Manipulated pizzicati sounds inhabit the finale (this has assumed a parallel existence in recent times as one of the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’); it’s a fairy procession of trippy dance, which seems to stumble along the snow-glazed thoroughfares of Yekaterinberg accompanied by some of Prokofiev’s earlier noirish gestures, big-band chords and deeply danceable hip-hop beats. I found it a joy to hear this work in its fully realised form. The sound is vivid and appealing whilst the players seem to be having an absolute ball.

On the face of it Prokofiev’s cello concerto may seem relatively conventional; however it successfully incorporates several of the rhythmic grooves found in the coupling. A quasi-minimalist string effect opens the work without prevarication, although the soloist’s initial contributions seem rather unassuming and fractured. The composer has integrated a plethora of extended techniques into an engaging cello part which demands as much from the soloist in terms of athleticism as it does artistry (the excellent Boris Andrianov is found wanting on neither count). The sounds that emerge consequently imply a sense of anxiety which frequently seeks to disturb the flow of the piece. While the patterns of notes seem familiar and logical, the whole is anything but, despite occasional diversions which hint at traditional notions of what a cello concerto should be. The central Lento begins with restrained murmurings; sustained, dark chords suggesting a threnody (confirmed by the ‘in memoriam’ label). The music quickens, while the duration of the solo line seems to lengthen in what seems to be a lyrical exploration of one note. This strange, haunted music simultaneously evokes the spirits of the composer’s grandfather and Alfred Schnittke. An ominous central section features coarse cello sounds and unpredictable, discomfiting percussion knockings. This episode is dominated by the deafening silences between the notes. A weary procession leads to a tortured climax at 9:01, its tread trailing off markedly before an uncertain conclusion. There is beauty, if not solace in this bleakness. The finale sets off with a classical skip until overt hip-hop elements kick in. After a brief caesura at 3:24 the solo cellist forges a path among dense staccato strings as Prokofiev creates a strident, if short-lived arrhythmia, before the music stops and starts up again – I wonder if other listeners will detect a possibly unconscious nod to Mosolov’s Iron Foundry in this movement?. The concerto’s end is an organised chaos which splutters about in fits and starts and builds enigmatically to a big single-chord climax, a false ending and an offbeat conclusion.

My experience of this most alluring, original work was akin to spending a long train journey observing a strange procession threading its way through an adjacent pine forest; one thinks one is getting the gist of what one hears (or sees), but the spaces between the notes create doubt; is it all a vivid illusion, a dream? The coupling is inevitably more ‘in your face’. What is becoming more obvious with each successive release, however, is that in compositional terms Gabriel Prokofiev is an original spirit - a real force to be reckoned with. I imagine that despite the obvious pride he feels for his family name, in practical terms it possibly constitutes a curse as much as a blessing – the likes of me are always going to be on the lookout for strands of the DNA in his music. While they’re undoubtedly there- how could they not be- they constitute just one of the influences this composer has fully absorbed in forging a fascinating personal style, one that is becoming more readily identifiable with each successive opus. The wonderful performances here (and Signum’s spectacular sound) absolutely bear this out. There are plenty more tempting looking offerings in Prokofiev’s list of works; hopefully when the current chaos lifts Signum will give us many more opportunities to get to know his unique voice.

Richard Hanlon

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