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Mr. P’s Lost and Found Department

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/09/2010 -  
“Prokofiev Rediscovered”: Presented by Yale School of Music, Yale in New York and Prokofiev Society of America
Franz Schubert: Waltzes, transcribed for two pianos by Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev: Trapèze (New York Premiere) – Music for Athletic Exercises (New York Premiere) – Distant Seas (Fragment of an unfinished opera) (World Premiere)

Elizabeth de Treio (Soprano), Dann Coakwell, Rolando Sanz (Tenors), John Hancock (Baritone), Stephen Taylor (Oboe), Emil Khudyev (Clarinet), Mark Daniel Van Biemen (Violin), Ettore Caua (Viola), Aleksey Klyushnik (Double Bass), Robert Blocker (Piano), Boris Berman (Piano, interlocutor)

B. Berman (© DMN Music)

Rumor has it the Pittsburgh Symphony was performing a few feet from Zankel Hall tonight. But who could think about the musical coal-miners when we had a chance to hear three–count’em, three–New York premieres and one world premiere of music by Sergei Prokofiev.

They may not have been magnum opuses, but the four works encompassed what Prokofiev did best: two ballets, one opera, and one of his rare adaptations of another piece, this for two pianos.

That, in fact, opened the evening, with the marvelous Boris Berman–one of the world’s greatest exponents and writers of Prokofiev–and Robert Blocker, also from Yale University, doing the two-piano version of Schubert waltzes.

Frankly, I was split on their effect. The full force of 20 fingers made these light trifles seem heavy, almost Brahmsian. On the other hand, Prokofiev’s enigmas were fun to deduce. Like, how many waltzes? I detected the first of the Valses Nobles, which came back as a kind of leitmotiv. But Prokofiev subtly added more waltzes: a bar here, a descant waltz there, two waltzes played at the same time. Then too, he added some quirky jokes. Canonic repetitions, one imitation of a bass cembalon with a tinkly waltz in the upper keys. No dissonances per se, but a few harmonies not quite in sync with what was played before.

This was originally for one piano, mainly to show Prokofiev the perfomer, but this augmented two-piano version deserves wider hearing.

The first ballet music, Trapèze was for tiny orchestra, was written in 1923, when the composer was at his most playful. With two violins, no cello but a very blatant double-bass, oboe and clarinet, it had the mock-serious antics of a Lt Kije, if not quite the inspiration. Some of the music was enchanting, including a theme and variations, a terrific “Tumblers Dance” with a few simple fugues. Most notable of all, the penultimate movement, which gave a spooky premonition of his later “great ballet”, virtual outtakes from Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. It was also noticeable than whenever Prokofiev wrote for solo clarinet, it always sounds like Jewish klezmer music.

The next work was actually danced: three splendid soloists doing a quasi-classical ballet called Music For Athletic Exercises. The 1939 “cast” was supposed to be thirty-thousand dancers doing exercises in Red Square. That was never performed (for explanation, see CODA below), but these three dancers were an excellent facsimile.

Mr. Berman did piano honors, starting each movement with a mock bugle-call, followed by a series of dances. The opening dances were quasi-classical, quasi Stalinist-fascist exercising, very funny, very cleverly done. The next section had the two men competing for honors, followed by Elysia Dawu dancing solo, and then the three in a fire-powered series of exercises. I doubt if 29,997 more dancers could have been more effective.

I was seated next to a dance critic, who strongly felt that both ballets were not only made for the dance, but could be put into any repertoire.

The last work was a fragment of an opera which could have been written by Noel Coward. A college boy in love with a girl, the other boys jealous, and a long joke about a drunkard, ending with a mock-minuet. Let’s put it this way: it sung better than that brief synopsis is written.

Mr. Berman gave a brief synopsis, but the Russian singing (by very able singers) was not quite comprehended. Now when Shostakovich wrote light music, his love of American jazz, light songs, Hollywood musicals, was natural and apparent. Prokofiev wasn’t that eclectic, so, until the pleasant duets between the men, it didn’t make that much sense.

Never mind. Nothing by Sergei Prokofiev can ever be dull. Yale has done itself proud by presenting these discoveries and rarities from one of the major–and most inimitable composers of the last century.

CODA: And whatever happened to those “exercises” for 30,000 dancers? The spectacle was about to be directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold, but a few weeks before the performance, Mr. Meyerhold was told to appear before Beria’s Secret Police. In a few days, they shot him dead.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, ars was a helluva lot longa than the vita was brevis.

Harry Rolnick



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