Prokofiev Symphony No. 1 in D ‘Classical’

performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky,or below with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

And Prokofiev is wonderful.

This one has also been stewing for a while, waiting to get its turn for quite some time.

I have this very early recording of Koussevitsky and the BSO performing this one from some performance ages ago, and the sound quality is less than wonderful, but that’s part of the reason I love it. I also have Gergiev and the LSO, but I’d never listened to it in full because the first movement is SO much slower than this BSO recording I had come to love because of its lightness and energy. The first movement at Gergiev’s tempo is a full minute longer than Koussevitsky’s, and for a 3-4 minute movement, that’s an enormous difference in tempo. Serge also plays the second movement more than a minute faster than Gergiev. Their third movements are almost the same (Gergiev’s about 15 seconds slower in a 90-second movement), but Gergiev surprised me one day when I listened to the whole recording. He plays the fourth movement a whole 20 seconds faster than Serge, who already plays it pretty darn fast. That breakneck speed makes it sound to me like a few of the instruments can’t even keep up. The flutes in the BSO recording are crisp and light and play a perfectly perforated sixteenth note, while the LSO at its white-knuckled tempo has a difficult time keeping up.

Enough about tempi, I love this recording not just because of the consistency in tempi, but also because the audio quality also makes it sound antique-ish. It’s also just such a stinking wonderful piece.

Prokofiev wrote this as a result of his conducting studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under Tcherepnin, who was teaching them to conduct Haydn. 

I find it delightful that while there are no actual quotations of any work of Haydn here, he imitates the style with such recognizable perfection and energy. There’s a great little speech by Maestro Leonard Bernstein talking about humor in music and he uses this symphony as an example of a caricature of the qualities of classical music. Well, it isn’t a little speech; it’s a full hour, and I think they play this piece at the beginning and then after the lecture, they go back and play it again.

Prokofiev wrote this piece in the countryside as an experiment composing away from the piano. It has an almost festive, vibrant cheery feel, almost like if you told me it’s supposed to be played around the holidays, I would have no problem envisioning sleds and fresh snow and happy children, especially the fourth movement.

I’m beginning to appreciate the Classical era more and more (you’ll see Mozart Monday has taken a hiatus), and there’s another piece that’s currently growing on me (aside from the attention I’m giving more and more to Mahler) that also sounds very classical in nature. As I said in the previous post (I think), I’ve been told it is obvious I’m in love with the Romantic era, and that may be part of the reason I have a difficult time really enjoying (at least early) Mozart and Haydn and stuff, but there’s something about Prokofiev….

I am more familiar with his piano works. His first sonata, op. 1, is quite an impressive op. 1, and I love the story behind his first piano concerto (as well as the piece itself), which I will probably tell here later. I find him to be a terribly interesting fellow. I seem to recall he studied alongside Scriabin and Rachmaninoff (here’s a photo of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff together, Scriabin second from the left and Rachmaninoff to the right of the teacher, awkwardly tall and big-eared, and although Prokofiev isn’t pictured, I seem to recall him being in collusion with the two of them in class somewhere).

Anyway, he has some of the classical romanticism of Rachmaninoff, some of the more modernism of Scriabin (in a totally different way), and the Russianness of both. His ‘war sonatas’ are entirely different from the feel of this work, but I thoroughly enjoy the snarky, humorous, very individual voice he has in all his works. While not everything of his is humorous (have a listen to the infamously intimidatingly difficult second piano concerto [and that cadenza!!!!]), he certainly has an individual voice, and it’s present even when he assumes the persona of such an individual character as Haydn, who himself has a great deal of humor and wit in his music.

Sarcasm! Sarcasm is the word I would use to describe Prokofiev, or what of him I am familiar with. Sarcasm can be humorous, but it can also be biting and seething and dark and cynical, but is always witty and pointed, as I feel Prokofiev’s music is. And even as light and enjoyable as this symphony is, it still maintains that individual feel.

On a simpler note, as a symphony that one could listen to in the time it takes to take a shower or make breakfast (usually around 10-12 minutes), it’s the length of an encore piece, but it takes on the full symphonic structure and form and is a thoroughly enjoyable, satisfying, perfectly self-contained work. This is something I feel a newbie to classical music could get excited about. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy listening to this piece riding my bike home from work in the cool weather with a nice breeze. It’s fresh and crisp and enjoyable and the last movement perfectly fits the liveliness of a quaint little bike ride home. I really love this piece.


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