A Splendid Wintry Carpet Programme Preview

Mountains covered softly

With a splendid wintry carpet;

All is brightly dazzling…

from Alexander Pushkin (1799—1837): Eugene Onegin (1823—1832; chapter 5, verse 1, lines 12—14)

The rebirth of a Russian artistic consciousness perhaps began with Pushkin, and it was his narrative poem Eugene Onegin that Tchaikovsky (his Valse-Scherzo features in Concert II of this series) re-worked as the subject matter for one of his sumptuous operas. Though of all nineteenth century Russian composers, Tchaikovsky’s musical language is most orientated towards a pan-European compositional identity. The inheritor of his mantle was Rachmaninoff (his Vocalise is in the second concert), who left Russia during the Revolution for the international concert platform and never returned. By contrast, Prokofiev did make the homebound pilgrimage, a decision that unleashed in his work a new fount of truly Russian melodic inspiration couched in Classical formal architecture. Both of his violin sonatas, his Five Melodies, and selections from Romeo and Juliet are included in this series. The most enigmatic is Medtner, who lingered in the Soviet Union until 1921, but whose three massive violin sonatas are monuments instead to the German symphonic tradition, though he found vestiges of a Russian voice in his third violin sonata despite remaining outside his homeland to the end of his life. Undoubtedly, at the heart of this revival are Russian schools of violin and piano performance and their equally tempestuous impact.

Concert I

Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 1 in F minor, op. 80 (1938-46) | Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     I. Andante assai

     II. Allegro brusco

     III. Andante

     IV. Allegrisimmo – andante assai, come prima

…Dawn Rises in a Cold Mist…

from Alexander Pushkin (1799—1837): Eugene Onegin (1823—1832; chapter 4, verse 41, line 1)

Comprising four substantial movements and written in the period spanning the Second World War, Prokofiev’s first violin sonata is a starkly written and darkly inspired essay in the craft of recreating a classical form. Together with the second violin sonata that was composed concurrently, it is as if Prokofiev, as a composer of the Soviet Union, is wresting away the quintessentially Germanic sonata principles of balance, proportion, contrast, and dynamism, and painting them entirely new in a more sombre Russian hue. His sonata is a musical Stalingrad: not only a triumph over the fascist forces of violence and aggression, but also a seizure of those forces and a complete re-working of them.

The symbolic nature of his achievement was recognised immediately and Prokofiev was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1947 for the composition, one of ten awards made in the arts for that year. Premiered by David Oistrakh (to whom the work is dedicated) and Lev Oberin in 1946, so deep does it draw on the cultural wellsprings of Prokofiev’s oeuvre that Oistrakh also played the first and third movements at Prokofiev’s funeral in 1953. Here is no longer the enfant terrible of modernism who left the Soviet Union in 1918 for newer and greener pastures in America. In contrast with the brittle sprightliness of his compositions of that epoch, there emerges instead the mature voice of an adult artist who returned to his homeland first in 1927 to tour as a pianist, and then later in 1936 at the height of Stalin’s purges, to settle there permanently. This newer style invokes the sonorous and impassioned tones that first appeared in the second violin concerto of 1935 and dominated all of Prokofiev’s later works.

The canvas he works on is vast, and each of the four movements of the first violin sonata is a fully-fledged intricacy of musical construction and expression. Melodies are long and winding, as spacious as the vast birch forests of Russia, stretching indefatigably into the distance with the same breadth and tenacity that absorbed, checked, and defeated the German panzers. In the first movement, this tautness of design is encapsulated by the opening slow motif in octaves in the lower register of the piano, and continues with long passages where the violin plays melodious double stops as a counterpoise, including a central section in B minor (the most distant key possible from the opening) whose drone-like features recall Russian folk instruments. For the reprise at the close of the movement, ghostly violin scales and prolonged and complex pizzicato patchwork adorn a chorale-like extemporization of the main theme, as the birds swoop over the forests and into the horizon.

The second movement alternates between two contrasting elements, yet both still retain an essentially contrapuntal relationship between the two performers. One is a motoric driving motif heard at the opening; the other a more celebratory violin melody that soars across the different registers of the instrument. The generals and party dignitaries in the audience would have tapped their feet in approval at the virility of the first and been spurred on by the visionary victoriousness of the second. The third movement is more gentle and begins with arpeggiated piano triplets, almost like a Bach keyboard prelude, reminding us that this was a form that Prokofiev’s contemporary Shostakovich also inhabited; whilst a tremulously hesitant contrasting theme, nonetheless tinged with tender ardour, provides pause and punctuation to this mellifluous flow.

As an abrupt contrast, the fourth movement begins in an appropriately feisty and tempestuous mood, recalling perhaps the fervour of a rebellious youth, and includes prolonged passages of pizzicato similar to those of the first movement. These are set against another theme that is simple and modal in style, and are reminiscent of Russian folk idioms. The work draws to a close with the same ghostly scales over a chorale presentation of the opening idea of the first movement, a cyclical device spanning the entire composition such was beloved of the German Romantics, but here reused to unite the overall work in a uniquely Russian mood.

Prokofiev’s short-lived sabbatical in the halo of political favour did not last. In 1948 with the so-called Zhdanov decree, together with a host of other Soviet artistic luminaries including Shostakovich, he was accused of “formalism”, which meant an espousal of “art for art’s sake”. This was an aesthetic considered diametrically opposed to the requirement that musical creation serve the Party and the masses. The enthusiasm that had met his capture of Germanic sonata traditions during the Great Patriotic War had turned sour, and the consummate skill of this achievement was turned against him. He lived under this cloud for the short years that were left to him, a darkened tragedy as overcast as the melody that opens the first violin sonata itself.

Five Melodies for Violin and Piano, op. 35 (1925) | Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     I. Andante

     II. Lento, ma non troppo

     III. Animato, ma non allegro

     IV. Andantino, un poco scherzando

     V. Andante non troppo

Written before Prokofiev first returned to the Soviet Union in 1927, the “formalism” of sonata form that so attracted him in his later years is altogether absent here. These five pieces are instead shorter and less complex musical structures, mostly couched in simple ternary forms with a reprise of the opening coming after a contrasting middle section. Although there are Russian elements, the predominant musical wellspring is undoubtedly French, and their aesthetic takes principally from the shorter piano pieces of Debussy, for example, the Préludes, as each is an exploration of no more than a couple of musical ideas at most. This parallel is more than simply whimsical, as Debussy too, succumbed to the inevitable magnetism of the Central European Germanic tradition towards the end of his life with his own canon of sonatas, yet also reworked in an inimitable way.

So too the musical language of Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, which also borrows heavily from the languid sophistication of French impressionism, though with a strong admixture of central European chromaticism. Also present are many of Prokofiev’s hallmark shifts to unrelated tonalities within a seamless melodic line and then effortlessly back again. Few violinists will miss the direct rhetorical reference, or homage, in the opening figure of the first Melody to a similar moment at the start of the first movement of César Franck’s violin sonata, both sharing the same sense of unrequited passion. Prokofiev’s sketch-like gem is nonetheless not the fully developed sonata movement of Franck, and no sooner has it started than it is over. For the violinist it presents the greater challenge, however, of sustained melodic writing in two or more parts, as is found in the first movement of Prokofiev’s first violin sonata. In both cases, they are uncompromisingly crafted with harmonic progression and sonority in mind and not ease of execution.

Folk-like elements come to the fore in the second Melody, which begins with a tune of a generic European vernacular style using only the white notes of the piano, but then moves elegantly to incorporate a C sharp in its overall contour as the initial simplicity dissolves. Russian folk characteristics take over in the middle section with persistent drones and trill-like patterns imitating rustic shawms. The melody here has the narrow compass and repetitive iconic motifs so beloved also of Stravinsky in his renditions of rural Russia. Prokofiev’s third Melody, more impassioned, begins and concludes with a Romantic statement of strident intent, but the vibrant opening soon softens into a much more Debussyan central section incorporating white-note melodies over rippling and ambiguous harmonies.

The fourth Melody is marked by a bucolic joviality and sense of sardonic mocking such are frequently found in Prokofiev’s pre-Soviet compositions, for example, the first violin concerto of 1915-17. By contrast, a sensuous lilt of impressionist colour returns in the fifth Melody, but sandwiched between the glorious sound-world of the opening and the close is a central section of unspoilt Prokofievian wit, at once playful and comic, and yet also flavoured with bitter sarcasm. This combination of sophisticated internationalism in the Five Melodies is the springboard from which, two years later, Prokofiev made his first pilgrimage back to his homeland where a new austerity—spiritually, materially, and also musically—eventually awaited him.

Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 1 in B minor, op. 21 (1904-10) | Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)

     I. Canzona

     II. Danza

     III. Ditirambo

Medtner lived and worked in Moscow before emigrating to Germany in 1921. He had also studied at the Moscow Conservatoire. Said to be quiet in character and conservative in tastes, his musical inspiration comes from the passion, complexity, and density of the late works of Beethoven. The language and style of his early period to which this sonata belongs are firmly rooted in the Germanic tradition, and pay only occasional lip service to Russian nationalism and folk traditions with sporadic use of drones in the violin double stopping. For someone who was considered to have a cool temperament and who lived with his parents during the years he wrote this piece, the sonata is remarkably fiery and tempestuous in mood, and proceeds in stages of ever-increasing feverishness to a long and sustained climax at the close of the last movement. In fact, the piano writing with its fistfuls of notes and chromatic harmony set against a violin that principally carries the melody is reminiscent of the sonatas of Brahms, another composer of an outwardly reserved disposition. Brahms’s works in this genre were written a few decades earlier and probably served as models for Medtner.

The first movement is entitled “Canzona” and on the face of it, fulfils the requirements of the form with its gentle lyricism and lilting melody, but this is in name only. In fact, it is composed in an almost text-book sonata form, with the requisite three sections—exposition, development, and recapitulation—all balanced in length, key, and mood, and the whole rounded off by a coda. Melodic material, for example, the opening subject, is far removed from the essential singability of the canzona style, and this lengthy theme spans two or more octaves. Similarly, the subdued passion at the opening of the central development section bursts into a frenzy immediately prior to the recapitulation of the opening theme, as is required by sonata form. This all gives full play to contrasts that indicate a rich and advanced emotional palette.

The second movement “Danza” begins and ends gracefully in G major, the nearest related key to the home key of the whole sonata (B minor), but this framework is the only feature of the architecture of the movement that can be defined with certainty. Set between these outer pillars is a lengthy contrasting “trio” section that romps through a dizzying array of keys, moods, textures, and metres.

A dithyramb or “ditirambo” is an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced to the honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility—hardly the natural territory of the staid Medtner and his implacable exterior—but the continual passion and virility of the third movement are truly extraordinary, and foreshadow the sustained symphonic climaxes of Shostakovich. A performance direction of “Festivamente” is given at the outset, and the key is an exultant B major rather than the more elegiac B minor of the opening movement. The music then proceeds in a series of block-like sections, each exploring a different figuration and layout and each more intense than the last, forming a patchwork similar to those found in Stravinsky’s late ballets which are themselves also inspired by Greek texts. The pace is furious but as the drunken procession cavorts into the distance, the close becomes quiet perhaps with exhaustion.

About the Author: Dr Colin Huehns studied violin with Emanuel Hurwitz. His first experience in music from outside the Western Classical tradition came at King’s College, Cambridge, when he wrote a dissertation on the music of Hunza Valley and Gilgit, Pakistan, an interest which culminated in a PhD thesis awarded by Cambridge University for ‘Music in Northern Pakistan’ in 1992.

He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has remained active as a composer. Following a three-year British Academy Research Fellowship at Cambridge, Colin spent three years as a student at the Xi’an Music Conservatoire, studying the erhu with the distinguished virtuoso Jin Wei.

Since returning to the UK in 1999, he has taught electives in non-Western, traditional, and folk music at the Academy. He has also taught electives, which include learning the erhu, and Chinese and British members of the dulcimer family. As well as continuing to play the viol, viola, violin, rebec, Renaissance fiddle, and various dulcimers, his main teaching, research, performance, and composition interests now centre on his Chinese instruments, which include some twenty different members of the erhu, yangqin, and Mongolian horsehead fiddle families.

Colin’s erhu performances have included recitals in Munich, Leeds, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, but he is particularly proud of having recorded two CDs of erhu music written especially for him.