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Essential Prokofiev

The must-have works of Sergei Prokofiev
By Gary Barton

Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow RobinsonMarch 1952. Sergei Prokofiev finishes the piano score of his Seventh Symphony in Moscow. Originally intending to write a symphony for children, he now worries it is much too simple. Mortally ill, he asks Anatoly Vedernikov to finish the orchestration under his guidance.

October 11, 1952. The Seventh premieres on an all-Prokofiev concert that also includes a new "official" work, the oratorio On Guard for Peace, written to appease the Union of Composers and to try to reestablish himself as an honored artist of the Soviet Union. The work is patriotic and accessible, prerequisites to avoid further accusations and reprisals from Stalin's henchmen, but in its banality it is barely recognizable as a work by one of Russia's two most famous composers. It is the last concert Prokofiev will ever attend.

May 5, 1953. Prokofiev's death passes almost unnoticed in Russia. The press is entirely preoccupied with the death of Joseph Stalin, who died on the same day, three hours after Prokofiev. Only a few of his closest friends are at the graveside for his funeral a few days later, as the public, still unaware of his death, participates in the mammoth observance for Stalin which fills and paralyzes Moscow.

Sergei Prokofiev was an only child who grew up on an estate of over 18,000 acres in Ukraine, which his father, an agronomist, maintained for a friend. His mother, Maria Grigorevna, was extremely protective of young Seryozhenka (a diminutive of Sergei which would evolve as he grew older) from the time of his birth on April 23, 1891, well past his adolescence.

Selected Letters of Sergei ProkofievIt could be said that Sergei's musical education began well before his birth. Maria Grigorevna played the piano with passable skill throughout her pregnancy, and Sergei became interested in the piano at a young age. His mother gave him what rudimentary skills she could, but it soon became evident that he needed expert guidance. His parents hired the young Reinhold Gliere, who would later become well known for his ballet The Red Poppy, the first Soviet ballet on a revolutionary theme, to come and live on the estate. Gliere continued young Sergei's musical education where his mother had left off.

Prokofiev lived in the West, in Europe or the United States, for two decades. He, his wife Lina and eventually their two sons led a nomadic existence that was glamorous and financially rewarding. His contacts with Gershwin, Ravel, Poulenc, Honegger, Stravinsky, Milhaud were frequent during his extended stays in Paris, where he was at the center of musical activity.

He always considered himself Russian, however, and visited home frequently, but so adopted Western attire and attitudes that he became politically suspect when he finally returned for good to a Russia torn by a revolution that had scarcely affected his life at all. He had an automobile, a "streamlined" Ford, he brought to Moscow with him during the time when an individual owning an automobile was unheard of, not to mention an American car. When the Stalinist crackdown on composers came, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were hit hardest.

I cannot recommend highly enough the superb Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Northeastern University Press, 2002), to anyone seriously interested in the fascinating life of this key 20th century composer. The story is captivating, not only to a lover of music, but of history as well. Robinson manages to present a balanced picture of Prokofiev, "warts and all," and he manages to bring acute insight to the music itself. Here, for the first time in English, are important resources from archives once inaccessible to scholars both in and out of the Soviet Union. In addition, its companion, edited and translated by Robinson, Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev, (Northeastern University Press 1998) is also excellent. The circumstances surrounding his great successes (and tragic failures) in both his personal and creative lives, as revealed by Robinson, shed new light on the familiar compositions.

The Essential Prokofiev

The quality of the man's music is unquestionably top notch. I hope you will undertake the adventure of exploring the exotic land of this man's mind as expressed in his music, a mind obsessed with chess and crackling with the raw energy that can only be called genius.

Sergei Prokofiev, Enfant TerribleSergei Prokofiev, Enfant Terrible (1891-1953): A 50th Anniversary Celebration
Decca #473443 (2 CDs)

For a Prokofiev jump start, begin with the pieces from the wonderfully diverse Enfant Terrible set, which contains 24 tracks from Prokofiev's operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos, and other works. It is a veritable smorgasbord of excerpts from various Prokofiev recordings on Decca, Deutsche Grammophon & Philips. It also contains a large booklet with tributes by pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and conductor Valery Gergiev, a comprehensive essay by Andrew Huth, a highly-informative mini-biography, as well as chapters on The Operas, The Ballets, Film Theatre & Choral Music, The Symphonies, The Concertos, and Piano & Chamber music. The selections are wonderfully eclectic, and you'll find yourself checking the track numbers repeatedly. One caveat: There are no complete works here, only carefully selected movements, overtures, choruses and scenes.

Sergei Prokofiev: PanoramaSergei Prokofiev: Panorama
Deutsche Grammophon #469172

For the beginning listener who craves full courses instead of hors d'ouvres, Serge Prokofiev Panorama offers the complete Symphony No. 1, "Classical Symphony" with Claudio Abbado and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Violin Concerto #1 in a lavish performance featuring violinist Shlomo Mintz; a melding of Suites 1 & 2 from the ballet Romeo & Juliet running over half an hour with Msitslav Rostropovich (who also worked closely with Prokofiev) conducting The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.; and the mezzo soprano solo from the film score for Alexander Nevsky with Elena Obraztsova. That's just disc one!

Disc two features Martha Argerich in the Third Piano Concerto; Sviatoslav Richter (who was also close to Prokofiev and played the premiere of several of his compositions) playing parts of Visions Fugitives; and Lorin Maazel rounding out the set, leading the Cleveland Orchestra in the Symphony No. 5.

Piano Concertos
The piano was Prokofiev's instrument, and the progressive collector will want all five of the piano concertos. (Interestingly, none were completed in Russia.) There are several complete sets to choose from, and here are my favorites in order of preference:

Prokofiev Piano Concertos: Krainev/KitaenkoVladimir Krainev
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Kitaenko conducting

Teldec #21038 (2 CDs)

Vladimir Ashkenazy
London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting

London #452588 (2 CDs)

Michel Beroff
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur conducting

EMI #62542 (2 CD's)

The Beroff/Masur set also includes Overture on Hebrew Themes for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet, as well as the solo piano Visions Fugitives Nos. 1-20. (A French translation for the Russian title "Mimoletnosti," meaning fleeting and transient impressions or ideas. The title comes from a poem, "I Do Not Know Wisdom," by Balmont.)

Symphony No. 5
The Fifth is clearly Prokofiev's most important symphony, perhaps his greatest Soviet effort. Several of his other symphonies are cobbled together pieces of operas and ballets that failed or were never performed in his lifetime. I'll single out three recordings for special attention, beginning with the performance I most highly recommend:

Prokofiev 5th Symphony: Jansons/Leningrad Philharmonic OrchestraMariss Jansons
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra

Chandos #8576
Play it loud!

Simon Rattle
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

EMI #54577
Didn't he do wonders with that ensemble?

George Szell
The Cleveland Orchestra

Sony #63124
1959 Epic recording, but superb. Also includes Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

Bargain Hunting

Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 5; Violin Concerto No. 1Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 5; Violin Concerto No. 1
Classica D'Oro #1049

Some surprisingly fine performances. Violin soloist here is Franco Gulli, who has performed in Cincinnati. He plays Prokofiev's "Fairy Tale" Violin Concerto #1, a work for which his teacher, Joseph Szegeti, was renowned. Gulli is heard with the RAI Orchestra "A.Scarlatti" of Naples, Sergiu Celibidachie conducting. Celibidachie also conducts the 1st and 5th Symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic and The RAI Symphony Orchestra Milan respectively.

Prokofiev Plays ProkofievProkofiev Plays Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev, piano
London Symphony Orchestra, Piero Coppola

Naxos #8110670

We are fortunate to have one recording of Prokofiev himself in his most popular Piano Concerto No. 3in a 1932 performance recorded in London's Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra, Piero Coppola conducting. Prokofiev also performs extracts from Visions Fugitives, as well as other some of his smaller piano works.


Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography & Selected Letters of Sergei ProkofievSergei Prokofiev: A Biography
by Harlow Robinson

Northeastern University Press

Selected Letters of Sergein Prokofiev
Edited by Harlow Robinson

Northeastern University Press

Super Audio Alexander Nevsky

Add the cantata based on the score for the film Alexander Nevsky to the list. My favorite performance unfortunately will not play in most standard CD players. It is a Sony SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) that works only in compatible audio systems.

The Nevsky recording that will totally amaze you features the New York Philharmonic and Westminster Choir (prepared by Warren Martin, Choral Director) with contralto Lili Chookasian. The conductor is Cincinnati's beloved Thomas Schippers. The recording, in its LP incarnation, was nominated for a Grammy in 1962 for Best Classical Recording-Choral (Other than Opera). Below is an image of the plaque presented to Maestro Schippers.

Schippers Grammy Nomination Plaque
Click to enlarge

It is almost beyond belief that such a recording has been brought back to life to sound as good as or better than any performance available using the latest, all-digital technology. If you are among those fortunate enough to hear Schippers' later performances when he was Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the 1970's, you don't need to be convinced of the incredible grasp of this work that Schippers possessed. I am at a loss for words to describe the impact of this performance.

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky
New York Philharmonic & Westminster Choir
Thomas Schippers, conducting
Sony #87711 (SACD)

Prokofiev: Alexander NevskyFor a fine conventional CD recording of Alexander Nevsky, I recommend Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The recording also includes the Scythian Suite and the popular Lieutenant KijÚ Suite.

Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Claudio Abbado, conducting
Deutsche Grammophon #447419


An extensive Prokofiev website featuring photos, recommended recordings, an interview with author Harlow Robinson and more.

Serge Prokofiev Association
Part of the Serge Prokofiev Foundation, set up by Lina Prokofiev to further the knowledge of Prokofiev's life and works.

Prokofiev 50th Anniversary
Commemorating 50th anniversary of Prokofiev's death .

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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