05 Jan 2024

PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1

by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – SERGE PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) – 1917, the year Prokofiev finally completed his 1st Violin Concerto, was among the most volatile in Russian history. Two anti-Czarist revolutions changed the face of the country forever – one in February and another in October. Prokofiev claimed to be in support of the upheavals but was away from Petrograd during the worst of it. “The disturbances,” he wrote in his diary that December, “have not reached our doors, the Caucasus in general seems immune from them.” Owing perhaps to this fortunate distance (“How prudent had been my idea of settling in Kislovodsk!”), Prokofiev managed to have one of his most productive years.  

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

THE HISTORY – Prokofiev was a busy composer back in 1915 as well, too busy in fact to lavish enough attention on his budding “concertino” for violin. His opera The Gambler was requiring his full concentration at that moment – a beneficial circumstance that allowed the modest violin piece of his earliest conception to incubate over a longer period. The extra time in the oven allowed the piece to grow into the full-fledged three movement concerto we know today. Sadly, however, more years of waiting would follow for this work as the revolution delayed the premiere until 1923 and necessitated a host city other than Moscow for the concert – Paris in this case. The French concert did not serve the concerto well. The social/professional ingredients were promising, with Koussevitzky on the podium and Picasso in the audience, but Prokofiev was not pleased with the chosen soloist. “At long last,” he provisionally rejoiced in his diary, happy that his concerto would finally be performed “seven years after it was composed, albeit with a poor violinist”. All due respect to Monsieur Marcel Darrieux, but Prokofiev’s rather lyrical score was doomed to be outshined that night by another, decidedly more Parisian premiere. Stravinsky’s new Octet for Wind Instruments, conducted by the composer on the very same concert, had just the sort of charming erudition and jazzy insouciance that French music aficionados admired and, though no one dismissed Prokofiev’s Concerto outright, one French composer did damn it with the faint praise of calling it “Mendelssohnian.” The term, a compliment in any other context, only tells two-thirds of the story. The outer movements certainly project an evolved Romantic-era sensibility (the first in particular – Prokofiev had likely heard and admired the long lines of Sibelius’ 1905 concerto), but the second movement is quite edgy and even a touch “modern.” When the 1st Concerto was performed to great success a few days later in Moscow (in a violin/piano version featuring none other than Milstein and Horowitz) and a year later by Joseph Szigeti in Prague, its star began to rise.                                                   

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1917, Lions Clubs International was founded in Chicago, the Balfour Declaration was signed in the United Kingdom and sculptor Auguste Rodin passed away in France.

THE CONNECTION – The most recent Masterworks performance of the 1st Violin Concerto was in September 2012. Thierry Fischer conducted and Alina Ibragimova was soloist.