Prokofiev String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, op. 50

performed by the Emerson String Quartet or below by the Pavel Haas Quartet

Prokofiev’s first string quartet comes shortly after the first version of his symphony no. 4, and just before the fourth piano concerto (the left-handed one) (with a few works in between), so it seems a bit late in coming for someone who already had some quite memorable works under his belt. Maybe that helped to make his first string quartet an impressive one, but regardless of the reason, impressive it is.

It was commissioned by the Library of Congress (and I’d like to maybe gather a list of works that they commissioned, because it’s not the first or second I’ve run across), but it wasn’t the composer’s first chamber effort. He wrote an Overture on Hebrew Themes, op. 34 for clarinet, string quartet and piano, as well as a quintet, op 39, (oboe , clarinet, violin, viola, bass), but this is his first (and clearly most traditional) chamber effort.

It’s in three movements, coming in at about 23 minutes. Whether it’s because it came late in the composer’s career, or because of the inspiration he drew from elsewhere, I feel this work is of a rather serious nature, perhaps rigorous is a better word, and of outstandingly high quality.

As a first string quartet, it’t not a trial run; it doesn’t feel like a first. From the downbeat, there’s an engaging propulsion, an intensity, but it’s balanced with charm. I hear (or am reminded of) Ravel in this work: it has such perfectly-executed qualities in melody, rhythm, attacks, contrasts, that we as listeners can relish in such well-crafted detail, and yet they never get in the way of the pure enjoyment of the music. There is a clearly identifiable second subject, and a robust, stormy development section. There appears our opening figure for a moment, deceptively, but the music keeps developing, organically, almost maniacally, but never with quite the sharp acidity of the earlier piano works we discussed last week. The recapitulation brings us back to the opening themes, but it isn’t just a repeat of what we got earlier, showing some real change in the arc of the movement.

The second movement begins, and we think, “Ah, the slow movement.” It sounds adagio-like, richly harmonic, like a modern version of the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s serenade, and the intensity wanes a bit, but it isn’t long before the cello sparks the quartet to life and we have, not a slow movement, but the scherzo, a more mischievous-sounding movement, not diabolical, an exercise in light and shadow, playful but with a hint of sarcasm, a wonderfully rich movement that shows Prokofiev’s apparent mastery of the quartet ensemble, even though he’d never written one before. It seems perfectly idiomatic for the quartet, another engaging, truly breathtaking work, with moments of plucked strings, blasts of color and texture that are extremely effective.

The third and final movement, then, is our slow movement but also our finale, a movement of considerable emotion. I feel, in listening to the third movement, that it reveals that each of these movements is a continuation of the prior, that we’re not listening to three separate movements or expressions of a mindset, but to three interconnected parts of a whole. There’s no motivic relation or interconnectedness, but the three movements seem to be along the same trajectory, one of apparently increasing melancholy. The finale doesn’t border over into sappy sorrow, but is an expressive, heartfelt, impassioned movement, with gloom and sadness, tastefully contrasted with glimmers of sweetness.

It’s a bit of a question mark at the end of this powerful work. It presents all the intensity and fullness that you’d want from a finale, but it doesn’t answer the questions it asks, doesn’t resolve its own sorrows. By giving us a sonata-form first movement, a scherzo, and a slow movement, there’s a sense that the work is incomplete, that there should, in this layout, be a fourth, but only because of tradition, because that’s what we expect from a string quartet. In reality, the work is plenty intense and substantial enough to stand on its own, but it’s like a movie that ends without resolving the tension that had been created throughout the rest of the work, leaving you to draw your own conclusions, and this is in itself a powerful conclusion.

I wonder about the personal nature of a commission like this, what the ‘terms’ or details were surrounding the commission, because this seems like a very personal work, an expression of some inner turmoil (as cliché as that sounds), a retelling of a personal experience, a working out of certain emotions, but that can also be universal.

It’s a stunning, confident, powerful first string quartet, deceptively well-executed for a first quartet, but it also displays many of the characteristics of Prokofiev’s music, if perhaps in a more polished, subtle way. The composer loved the third movement so much he wrote a version for string orchestra that apparently still gets some attention. It’s a splendid work, and one finishes listening with not only the desire to listen again, but perhaps a bit of disappointment that this is one of only two quartets the composer wrote.

With that, we’re done with Russian music for a while, at least packaged into a series. There’s a forthcoming wrap-up article, so stay tuned for that, and there is much excitement to come in November.

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