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The Prokofievs - Three Generations
Sergei Prokofiev
's complete chamber music

Blackheath Halls 11/12 October 2003

Complete works for violin and piano
Cinq Melodies (arranged for violin and piano by the composer) op. 35a (1925)
Sonata for violin and piano No 1 in F minor op. 80 (1938-46)
Sonata for two violins
Sonata for violin and piano No 2 op. 94a in D

Alexander Rozhdestvensky, violin
Vasko Vassilev, violin
Mikhail Rudy, piano

Sculpture by Oleg Prokofiev

Complete works for cello and piano
Ballade op 15 (1912)
Sonata for solo cello, op. 133 (1953)
Adagio from the ballet 'Cinderella', op. 97a (1944)
Suite from ballet 'Chout', op. 21 (1920). Arranged for cello and piano by Roman Sapozhnikov. UK premiere.
Sonata for cello and piano, op. 119 (1949)

Alexander Ivashkin, cello
Mikhail Rudy, piano

Gabriel Prokofiev* String Quartet
Elysian String Quartet

Sergei Prokofiev
String Quartet No 1 in B minor op 50 (1930)
Trapeze', music for ballet (1924-25)
Overture on Hebrew Themes op. 32 (1919)
String quartet No 2 in F op 92 (1941)

Mikhail Rudy, piano
Alexander Rozhdestvensky, violin
Natalia Lomeiko, violin
Daniel Raiskin, viola
Alexander Ivashkin, cello
Sergei Gorlenko, double bass
Melinda Maxwell, oboe
Colin Lawson, clarinet

This unique family event provided a rare, concentrated overview of the chamber music of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), which is inclined to be overlooked in the company of his orchestral music, ballets and operas. No equivalent event has been given in UK during the Prokofiev 2003 anniversary year.

South East London has a rare concentration of expertise in Russian music based at Goldsmiths College, with its Centre for Russian Music (Professor Alexander Ivashkin), the Serge Prokofiev Archive (curator Noëlle Mann), and the Prokofiev Association, which jointly put this prestigious event together. There is also a Schnittke Archive at Goldsmiths, and the programme book included extracts from Alfred Schnittke's essay On Prokoviev from A Schnittke Reader edited by Alexander Ivashkin.

Frances Prokofiev (resident in Blackheath) introduced an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by her late husband, the artist Oleg Prokofiev, the composer's younger son, and space was found to include the premiere of a new unpublished String Quartet by the composer's grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev.

The first event featured Mikhail Rudy with Gennadi and Victoria's son Alexander Rozhdestvensky, a commanding violinist who played the 'Haddock' Guarneri loaned by the Stradivari Society. His companion in the duo sonata was Vasko Vassilev of the Covent Garden Orchestra and holder of numerous positions, so we were told in the voluminous CVs of the participants provided, his including musical director of the Voodoo Girls Orchestra of Anastacia Island! More than a page was given to Mikhail Rudy's notable achievements, amongst which I was delighted to spot that next year he will be releasing Journey for two pianos - 'rewritten and improvised' classical repertoire with jazz pianist Misha Alperin, who had entranced us at Lucerne and in London.

The high spot of the first concert was the rarest work, the Sonata for two violins, which bowled over the audience. It had made a similar brilliant impression at the Wörthersee Classics Festival in Klagenfurt, played by Elena Denisova and Atle Sponberg; it is a very 'physical' piece, greatly enhanced by being seen live.

Alexander Ivashkin's Sunday morning cello recital with Mikhail Rudy was a well balanced programme of a suitable length, 1¾ hours, marred only by the inadequate and confusing notes and a mistaken, unannounced, order change which, after the first item, left us all guessing what we were listening to.

In the early Ballade the piano was too dominant. I found myself thinking that a duo recital with piano really needs four people, two performers, a turner-over, and a well placed listener in the audience who can give the pianist a discreet signal to modify his level. I am not one of those who always wants the 'soloist' to dominate his 'accompanist' (q.v Gerald Moore's hilarious account in Am I too Loud of working with a cellist for whom, despite best efforts, he always was so)!

Rudy's tone quality is pellucid and beautiful, however fortissimo, and things improved during the recital, but the unaccompanied cello piece, the so-called Sonata completed from sketches of the dying composer, was a high spot, just as had been the sonata for two violins the previous evening, when the same balance problem had been evident. The Suite from Chout was a winner, lots of devilry with glissandi and exaggerated vibrato - when new in 1920 the score provoked outrage, 'grotesquerie pushed beyond permissible limits'; delicious.

The afternoon recital was something of a marathon, nearly three hours with one interval, after which not everyone returned, to their loss. The backbone was the two string quartets, given with enormous conviction and dazzling expertise by a quartet of four Russians who do not play as a regular ensemble. Prokofiev's sting quartets certainly deserve a higher profile than they have won in the string quartet repertoire.

Two ballets in the programmes were probably new to almost everyone, Chout & Trapeze. An augmented ensemble gave the rare Trapeze, with additional items quarried from the Prokofiev Archive and given for the first time. There were too many for its placement at the end of an overlong first half, but the score would stand up very acceptably in dance with a small modern dance company; perhaps the nearly Laban Centre (newly announced winner of the prestigious Stirling Prize). Their Transitions Dance Company should consider Trapese for their collaboration with Trinity College of Music?

A last word for the youngest Prokofiev, grandson Gabriel Prokofiev, whose very new String Quartet was premiered by the excellent, locally based, up-coming Elysian String Quartet. Venturing into the hallowed world of the string quartet, the burden of its masterpieces daunting to many contemporary composers, Gabriel Prokofiev came fresh and unprejudiced from working in electro-acoustics, finding a distinctive voice which (to my ears, but not consciously his) built upon some of the original brusqueness and spare textures of Stravinsky's regrettably sole foray with his three, all too brief, pieces. It was arresting music which held attention easily in this august company, despite some awkward corners and loss of energy in the faster movements; Gabriel Prokofiev and the Elysians should continue developing it towards publication and a regular place in their repertoire.

With hindsight, it might have been better to have given that final concert with two intervals or, better, to have made the event a four concert weekend with special Saver tickets to encourage people to take it in as a whole - some were selective for financial reasons. All in all, it was a memorable event, achieved largely through the untiring efforts of Professor Ivashkin who was able to bring to Blackheath players of the highest calibre.

* Gabriel Prokofiev (b. 1975) has provided me with information to share with readers. In his mid-teens he put on gigs 'even at the Blackheath Concert Halls' before going up to Birmingham University, where he specialised in electroacousitc compostion & ethnomusicology, followed by Masters at York. He won a residency in Seattle at the Bourges International concours of Electroacoustic music.

When working in more 'popular' style, 'I'm always looking for originality & trying to develop whatever genre I'm composing in'. Gabriel enjoyed working on his commission from the Elysian Quartet 'even though string quartet wasn't a first choice' & was inspired by the Elysian's enthusiasm to take on new sounds & approaches. 'The quartet are enjoying playing it I'm keen to start on the next piece for them.'

'This is the first time since leaving University that I've used my famous surname: Prokofiev - - maybe because I was returning to a musical world closer to Sergei Prokofiev's it felt right to use that name - also Sasha Ivashkin & the Elysian Quartet insisted that I was named as a Prokofiev for this concert ... it didn't feel strange or embarrassing so I hope that there'll be some more G. Prokofiev compostions coming soon.

(Revised following original publication in Seen&Heard)


© Peter Grahame Woolf