email    home

Alexander Ivashkin, cellist


Published in the Three oranges, Journal of the Serge Prokofiev Foundation, No. 18 (November 2009), 7-14.

Alexander Ivashkin

COOLING THE VOLCANO:
Prokofievs Cello Concerto Op. 58 and Symphony-Concerto Op. 125.

Prokofiev was writing cello music all his life, starting with an early Ballade (1912), to his very last and incomplete piece, the Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 133 (1953).[1] Prokofiev's cello writing in the late period of his life was inspired by the young Mstislav Rostropovich, who began his brilliant concert career in the 1940s. The Cello Concerto No. 1 Op. 58 and its later version, the Symphony-Concerto Op. 125, completed in collaboration with Rostropovich, are very different works. The writing for cello is much more idiomatic in the Symphony-Concerto. The innovative technical discoveries in the Symphony-Concerto influenced Russian composers over the next few decades (including Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Concertos).[2]

The Concerto No. 1 is still very much related to Prokofiev's early, often experimental style, while the Symphony-Concerto is sometimes seen as an example of the so-called "degradation" of this style and is considered by many as a typically "Soviet" work.

Prokofiev wrote his Cello Concerto No 1 at the suggestion of the virtuoso cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky, who Piatigorsky recalls in his memoirs:

I thought that I had first met the awkward and outspoken Prokofieff in the house of Koussevitzky in Boston, or in Paris after a sonata recital with Horowitz, but most likely it was in Berlin, when I played his early Ballade with him and urged that he write a cello concerto. "I don't know your crazy instrument," he said. I played for him and, demonstrating all the possibilities of the cello, saw him from time to time jump from his chair. "It is slashing! Play it again!" He made notes in the little notebook he always carried with him. He asked me to show him some of the typical music for cello, but when I did, he glanced through it and said, "You should not keep it in the house. It smells." [] Finally he completed the first movement. I received the music and soon we began to discuss the other movements to come. The beginning of the second, which followed shortly, appeared as excitingly promising as the first. "Even so," said Prokofiev, "it will lead to nothing. I cannot compose away from Russia. I will go home."[3]

Indeed Prokofiev continued his work on the Concerto on his return to Russia. In September 1938 he finished the score, having applied significant changes to the piece and using only half of the material written in 1934. The first performance took place in Moscow, on 26 November 1938, with Lev Berezovsky, a cellist from the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and Alexander Melik-Pashaev conducting the State Symphony Orchestra.

Piatigorsky played the US première in Boston in 1940, but wasn't very happy with the Concerto. In his letters to Prokofiev he pointed out "certain weaknesses of the work".[4] However, Prokofiev was already in the USSR, and it was almost impossible for Piatigorsky to communicate with him. The full score of the Concerto was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1951, and the piano reduction in 1954.

On 21 December 1947, the young Mstislav Rostropovich performed Prokofiev's Cello Concerto with piano accompaniment. Prokofiev, who was present, liked the performance.[5] Later Prokofiev attended an evening performance of Nikolai Miaskovsky's Sonata No. 2 given by Rostropovich. Prokofiev enjoyed Rostropovich's playing, but ironically remarked: "You know, when you play passages on the G string in the finale, nothing can be heard."[6] It may have been his reaction to this performance which prompted Prokofiev to rewrite his Cello Concerto as a new work, the Symphony-Concerto.[7]

Soon it was performed in Moscow as Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra. The first performance of the new work took place on 18 February 1952 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire. Sviatoslav Richter was chosen to be the conductor: he had broken one of his fingers and could not play the piano at that time. Rostropovich approached not a professional orchestra, but the Moscow Youth Orchestra. He thought young musicians would be more enthusiastic about modern music. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The young musicians did not understand the music at all and made jokes at the rehearsals. The première was not successful, and the critics were quite negative. It was the last public performance with Prokofiev present. After the première of the Cello Concerto No. 2 Prokofiev again made some significant changes (especially in the orchestration and the composition of the final movement).[8] In this final version (never heard by Prokofiev himself) the new work received a new title: Symphony-Concerto Op. 125.[9] Rostropovich premiered it with the Danish Radio Orchestra in Copenhagen in December 1954. After Prokofiev's death, Rostropovich did everything to establish as soon as possible the Symphony-Concerto as a masterpiece of the cello repertoire. It wasn't easy, and for many years the work was deemed "unplayable".[10]

When comparing the Concerto No 1 and the Symphony-Concerto one can see that the two works are very different, although Prokofiev used many tunes from the former piece in the latter. First of all, the role and size of the orchestra are much more significant in the Symphony-Concerto (hence the title).

Secondly, the structure of the two works is very different: the central and most important part of the Symphony-Concerto is the second movement. The largest and most important part of the Concerto is its finale. The composition of the finales is also very different (although in both cases it is a set of variations): in the Concerto Prokofiev presents a kaleidoscopic combination of different tunes and episodes from all the movements of the Concerto, including Reminiszenza, based on the tune from the beginning, and the very unusual ending based on an augmented tune from the second movement. In the finale of the Symphony-Concerto the composer introduces a new theme. In the central episode one can hear the rather banal melody of a popular Soviet song by the Belorussian composer Isaak Liuban ("Byvaites' zdorovy, zhivite bogato").[11]

Thirdly, the cello part in the Symphony-Concerto was written in consultation with Mstislav Rostropovich, so it is much more convenient to play on the instrument. In contrast the cello part in the Concerto is extremely difficult and in some places, it is almost impossible to play exactly what is written. Overall, the profile of the Concerto is rather "chamber", compared with the monumental character of the Symphony-Concerto. It is still very much representative of the early Prokofiev, with its typical "fountain" of very bright and sparkling ideas, a feature which makes this work very attractive and unusual in the cello repertoire.


Rostropovich's participation in the shaping of the Symphony-Concerto has been discussed over the years, and more recently by Simon Morrison in his new book, The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Works. Despite Rostropovich's own memoirs of 1954[12], his liner notes for the CD box set Russian Years[13] and his numerous interviews (including talks with myself), as well as Prokofiev's own dedication on the cover page of the manuscript of the Cello Concerto No 2[14], Simon Morrison questions the degree of Rostropovich's participation in the creation of the Symphony-Concerto.

The common assumption that the two of them worked side by side on the Symphony-Concerto stems from a single photograph and newspaper report. It is undone by the primary source evidence, which finds Prokofiev composing the solo and accompanimental parts in relative solitude — and perhaps recalling the recommendations for corrections to his First Cello Concerto that he had received from Piatigorsky back in 1940. Once the material was drafted, he gave the sketchbooks to Rostropovich for technical correction and refinement, who in turn forwarded them to Prokofiev's assistant, Levon Atovmyan, for orchestration.[15]

He is even more "critical" in his OUP blog, accusing Rostropovich of being inaccurate in his recollections:

In 1951, Rostropovich assisted Prokofiev in transforming the First Cello Concerto into the Second Cello Concerto and then further into the Sinfonia Concertante [Symphony-Concerto], but the level of Rostropovich's involvement is unclear.[16]

It is not my intention to argue here with Simon Morrison, a meticulous researcher of the documents relating to Prokofiev. I merely intend to offer a few points for consideration, based on my own experience as a cellist who has performed and recorded all of Prokofiev's works for the cello.


If we look at Prokofiev's early cello compositions — from his Ballade (1912) and the Overture on Hebrew Themes (1919), through his string quartets (1930, 1941) and later, his Cello Sonata (1949), it is clear that the composer had very little knowledge of the instrument and its possibilities.

Thus, in the Ballade the register of the cello part is far too low and the range is too narrow. As a result the piece sounds like a piano work with cello accompaniment. The section with pizzicato is even more naïve: Prokofiev tries to match the marcato in the piano part with pizzicati in the cello part (very similar to Janáček's Pohádka written around the same time). As a result, it is very difficult for the performers to match each other's dynamic level. It is not surprising that the piece is not often played in concert, although it has been recorded quite a few times. The balance really only works in a studio situation, where "ideal" acoustics (which Prokofiev intended) can be re-created.

The cello parts in Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes and in his string quartets are more elaborate. In particular the beautiful melody (the second subject) in the Overture (fig. 13) is well written and causes no concern in respect of projection. But the secondary texture (for example, the accompanying figurations at fig. 39) once again show a poor understanding of cello technique, as they do not really add anything to the general texture. Here the cello is almost inaudible; the figurations were clearly worked out at the piano, as they imitate piano technique and texture.

With the years (and quite independently from his Cello Concerto) Prokofiev started to use the extreme top register of the instrument. His orchestral works are particularly well known for this. Having spent many years as a solo cellist at the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Orchestra, I always feared Prokofiev's high register solos. The most famous examples are the cello ensemble in the Friar Laurence scene from Romeo and Juliet (in particular the first cello part); the arson scene in Semyon Kotko; the beginning of the Finale of Symphony No. 5; and especially, a B-major theme in The Stone Flower played by celli tutti in unison. This is not only high, but also quite uncomfortable, insecure in terms of its intonation.

I do not think that Prokofiev's frequent use of his favourite top cello register is a result of his meetings with Rostropovich, Piatigorsky or any other cellist. This was his own taste for extreme colours - one of them was tuba timbre, with its extremely low notes of a very special kind. Rostropovich called these notes "beetles moving from one note to another".[18] However, it is quite possible that Piatigorsky may have helped to attract Prokofiev to the impressive possibilities of cello high register while they were working on the Cello Concerto. His arrangement of Prokofiev's March (a piano piece from the Music for Children Op. 65) for solo cello and his own piece for solo cello Prokofiev and Shostakovich walk in Moscow do not show any particularly brilliant or new instrumental ideas (despite the fact that Piatigorsky was himself an extraordinary virtuoso). My own view is that they are very much in the style of Prokofiev's early cello writing — such as in his Ballade or Overture on Hebrew Themes. On the contrary, Rostropovich's arrangements of Prokofiev's music — particularly the march from Love for Three Oranges — show a completely different vision of Prokofiev's style and of a cello palette suitable for this style.

Nevertheless, there are still many very high passages in this cello concerto. They do not always sound great, as they are written in a very uncomfortable way for the cello in terms of fingering, positions and intervallic structure. For example, the tune in the Cello Concerto No. 1 (fig. 56), very similar to the "dangerous" celli tutti fragment from The Stone Flower: Prokofiev leaves very few options for a cellist here. The tune has to be played either in the thumb position, across the strings — which in itself restricts the flexibility of the hand, thereby affecting the tone / projection; or by making very large leaps, making the pitch rather insecure. The melodic line, however, is very interesting here. From a purely musical point of view, this melodic fragment is much more sophisticated than the tunes in the Symphony-Concerto, but technically it is difficult and not well written for the instrument.

In 1944, Prokofiev arranged for cello and piano the Adagio Op. 97 bis, a short piece from Cinderella. It was written for Alexander Stogorsky — brother of Gregor Piatigorsky, who changed his last name in a very odd way in order not to be associated with his ousted émigré brother — Piatigorsky means "five hills" and Stogorsky — "a hundred hills". Although I knew Stogorsky quite well (he was my wife Natalia Pavlutskaya's cello professor for a while) I have never heard any confirmation that he collaborated with Prokofiev on writing the cello part of the Adagio. Yet it is obvious to any cellist that this piece was written with, or corrected by someone with full knowledge of the cello's possibilities. It employs various registers of the instrument, with chordal texture, double stops, high positions — and even extensive octave duplications of the tune (which sound distinctly odd in the Concerto No. 1) — but always with a perfect understanding of cello technique.[19]

Then came Prokofiev's Cello Sonata. This was the first cello piece written by Prokofiev with some input by Rostropovich. And one can hear it immediately. This work is written in a much more effective way, and the use of the cello is more comfortable than in the Cello Concerto. Perhaps from the very beginning Prokofiev was thinking of Rostropovich (as he decided to write his cello sonata after he heard Rostropovich performing Miaskovsky's Second Cello Sonata). I have no information on what exactly Rostropovich may have changed in the Sonata cello part, but it is quite obvious that the highly "cellistic" profile of this work was co-created with his help. Rostropovich himself told me about his involvement in shaping the cello part for the coda of the first movement, with well known passages for the cello. And indeed, these bell-like arpeggios are written with full knowledge of the instrument and still represent one of the most brilliant passages in the entire cello repertoire (first movement coda, fig. 19).

The most surprising episode comes at the end of the finale, where Prokofiev again introduces two lines in the cello part. (which he will also do later in the Symphony-Concerto). We find similar ossia in Prokofiev's First Cello Concerto. But there the ossia version is much more difficult than the other one, almost unplayable (fig. 59 in the Finale), although it offers a very interesting profile of the arpeggios. The ossia in the Cello Sonata, on the contrary, offers a much easier, but more boring, option and shows Prokofiev's own views on the limitations of cello instrumental technique. He avoids double stops and basically puts the cello in unison with the piano left hand. The other version (clearly suggested by Rostropovich), includes double-stop figurations, and passages which make the cello part more dramatic and comfortable to play; it also matches perfectly the complex piano texture, creating a real dialogue of two instruments here. (Finale coda, cello part, fig. 18 - 19).

Rostropovich observed: "Unlike Shostakovich, Prokofiev cannot sustain long development."[20] This is very true of his Cello Concerto No. 1 — it reminds one of a volcano, when the themes are born, then thrown away, and overlapped by new themes, or new sections with completely different textures and tempi. This Concerto is like a fountain with too many new ideas, so that the frame of the Concerto cannot accommodate all of them. This is very clear at the very end of the Finale. Less than a minute before the end an absolutely new idea is introduced, with scherzo-like music (fig. 89). It is as if Prokofiev wanted to bring the entire concerto into a completely new dimension.

Before Prokofiev started to rework his Concerto No. 1 into the Symphony-Concerto he asked Rostropovich to bring him some cello pieces. Rostropovich brought some Popper and Davidov. Well known is Prokofiev's response: "What rubbish you brought me!" But this "rubbish" certainly made some impact on the music of the Symphony-Concerto. Not only are the phrases and tunes longer, but there is also a much more consistent way of narrating these instrumental ideas. Prokofiev, so volatile in his Concerto, works out a narrative and a logical development in the Symphony-Concerto. Here all the sections are much longer, and the whole work is almost twice as long. There is a certain impact of "instructive" cello repertoire narrative in some passages and the way they evolve. What lasted just a few bars in the Concerto becomes a lengthy section in the Symphony-Concerto. While the Concerto's first movement was written in ternary form, the first movement of the Symphony-Concerto is in sonata allegro form that integrates new themes. For example, the development section in the first movement of the Symphony-Concerto (certain passages and C-major arpeggios suggested by Rostropovich) is written almost entirely like a Popper study or Davidov's Concerto, with consistent and gradual employment of various positions of the cello.

Of course, there is an ostinato idea here (always typical of Prokofiev), but the filling of the rhythmical ostinato patterns comes from instructive cello literature, exploring different string crossing and position changing (Symphony-Concerto, first movement, fig. 20).[21] Nevertheless I regard this as one of the most enjoyable and effective parts of the Symphony-Concerto, and whenever I perform it, I really relish these passages, so well written (just like Popper's C major study in his High School of Cello Playing Op. 73), which give the performer a chance to build up the dynamic development and reach a climax starting at the beginning of the recapitulation (this typically Russian idea, which comes from Tchaikovsky, was inherited by both Prokofiev and Shostakovich).

It is unclear who suggested that the "Davidov-like" passages should be repeated twice before any change is made. Perhaps Prokofiev thought of it himself. And in this respect he is a typical Russian, believing in the magic number "three", omnipresent in Russian folklore and fairy tales, as well as in Russian prayers. If the first attempt is unsuccessful, the third will definitely be a success. This very old Russian superstition has been part of the Russian mentality for centuries. There are always three roads to choose from in Russian fairy tales. You have to pray three times. You kiss your friends three times. You believe in the Trinity. You say "God loves number Three". The same idea can be found in the superstitious numerology of Tchaikovsky's (and Pushkin's) Queen of Spades: "three — seven — ace". Shostakovich takes this three-based pattern everywhere. So does Prokofiev, but only in his later compositions. In the Symphony-Concerto they are everywhere — you find them in the second movement as well, in particular, in the episode with a so-called "fate theme", just before the coda starts (fig. 40-43). There is nothing like this in Prokofiev's Cello Concerto No. 1. Changes there are so rapid that it is often difficult to follow them. This is probably why Prokofiev uses simple forms (ternary, variations) in the Concerto, and more complex sonata allegro forms in the Symphony-Concerto (even in the first movement).

Perhaps the more repetitive character of Prokofiev's style in his later compositions was also the result of his writing (and hearing) official Soviet music. There are striking similarities between the repetitiveness of Russian Orthodox church service music and Soviet official rituals. Communist leaders themselves used this powerful tool to make their speeches and their meetings more convincing. Ritualistic repetitiveness was one of the major components of Lenin's and especially Stalin's rhetoric. These "ritualistic" principles, also important in pop music today, were very typical for Soviet mass-culture songs in the 1930s-1950s. Exploring this repetitiveness, both Prokofiev and Shostakovich were able to find new resources for their musical language; suitable for the demands of "official" propaganda, but also for the composer's own use, without any compromise in musical terms.

Another example of this "superstitious three" (but also proof of Rostropovich's intervention) is the episode which acts as a bridge to the coda in the second movement of the Symphony-Concerto. This is one of the most impressive episodes, particularly unusual for late Prokofiev style because it is so dissonant, disturbing, and not really related to any of the standard shapes of Soviet Socialist Realism. (Symphony-Concerto, second movement, fig. 40-43). In the Cello Concerto No. 1, typically, this outstanding idea is thrown away and forgotten, without any development or direct continuation. It serves as a very impressive, but quite strange and brief "warning" before and after the main theme of the Finale makes a surprising (and rather ghostly) appearance in between these two warnings (Cello Concerto, second movement, 5 bars before fig. 50 to 3 bars before fig. 51). This is one of the most impressive ideas in the Cello Concerto - the very unusual, and expressive juxtaposition of the most simple major C-major tune of the Finale (yet to be born), and its "pre-conditional" fateful atonal surroundings (dissonant theme). So the theme of the Finale appears from the very beginning with a deep shadow. This is a clear forecast that the Finale (variations on this theme) will fail to establish anything; and indeed the finale of the Concerto (unlike the finale of Symphony-Concerto) is rather surrealistic, of bitter and fragile construction; almost like a stream of consciousness, totally unlike the typically Soviet optimistic, squarely structured conclusions of later Prokofiev pieces.

I do not know whether the brilliant idea of extending this episode came from Prokofiev or Rostropovich. But in the Symphony-Concerto the dissonant theme becomes the basis of quite an extensive bridge between the second subject of the movement at its most expressive appearances (with beautiful and intense double-stopping texture) and its very fast return to the beginning of the movement: dramatic and unquiet passages bursting into the almost hysterical and abrupt ending of the main tune. This brings a completely new dramatic profile to the movement, shaping it almost like a vicious circle.

But the most unusual and fascinating thing about this new "bridge" and its dramatic profile is that it is based on a simple idea of cello fingering. Of course, in the Concerto the cello doesn't even play the dissonant tune — it introduces instead the C major tune of the Finale, opposed by the orchestra's dissonant shadow chords. In the Symphony-Concerto, the cello starts (after two initial attempts by the orchestra — the superstitious "three" again) to develop the dissonant image as an idée fixe, just by moving positions in the cello part, and also by moving the thumb up and down. The dissonant tune itself seems to be a product of cello practising (a kind of exercise on changing pitches without changing the position of the second finger, indicated in Adrien-Fran?ois Servais' cello pieces as restez [remain]). It wasn't of course, initially composed with the cello in mind (Prokofiev gave this material to the orchestra, rather than the cellist, in the Concerto). However, its expansion in the Symphony-Concerto was probably Rostropovich's idea, having noticed the "cellistic" nature of the tune and how easily it could be moved up simply by changing position. The extended version of this theme in the Symphony-Concerto was certainly based on cello fingering principles.

Unlike the Symphony-Concerto, there are many places in the Concerto which should really be acknowledged as unplayable, at least in the tempi indicated. For example, the change from arco-spiccato to pizzicato with no pause in the Finale (Variation II, fig. 62, bars 18-19) is impossible to execute.[23] And the passages in the second movement at fig. 18, cannot be performed clearly in the recommended tempo (crotchet = 152). The Finale's Interludio II and most of the coda are very uncomfortably written for cello. It is not surprising that Janos Starker in his first recording of the Concerto (1956) made very significant cuts in the Finale (from fig. 74 to 4 bars after fig. 83; and between fig. 92 to 4 bars after fig. 94). Christina Walewska in her later recording (1972) omits from half a bar after fig. 88 to four bars after fig. 91 (Meno mosso); and again, like Starker, makes a cut from fig. 92 to four bars after fig. 94.

This last passage (fig. 92 to four bars after fig. 94) is particularly uncomfortable. It sounds great (and I enjoyed playing and recording it), but it is very hard to be in tune here, since the ricochet passages (very effective and unusual in themselves) are merely an attempt to apply piano technique to the cello fingerboard (after all, Bach himself did the same thing). This coda is, in a way, very similar to the coda of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, which brings a certain element of madness into the epic narrative of this great Symphony. In the Cello Concerto too, the coda in the Finale (especially from 89) starts like something completely unexpected, like a brand new idea, something that takes the listener and the performer outside the main structure of the concerto, outside everything that has happened so far. This idea of the "open form", or of a form opened to outside space, is a very innovative (and in fact quite post-modern ) point Prokofiev was trying to make. Of course, if you make cuts, the meaning and profile of the Finale look completely different.

Very different are the cadenzas in the two works. In the Concerto the cadenza is in the Finale, and is in fact one of the variations (in a very free improvisatory mood). In the Symphony-Concerto the cadenza is in the centre of the second movement, and is really the first part of the development section of this sonata allegro form. The harmonics in the cadenza of the Concerto are not well written, without any knowledge of the cello technique. Here the cellist is supposed to perform like a trombone player with his coulisse, except that the cello does not have a coulisse, which makes this passage very unsafe and also unimpressive, at least from a standard conservative point of view. In fact, perhaps Prokofiev wanted to discover some extended technique here, far from the rusty idioms of Dotzauer or Popper. It certainly sounds like an attempt to find something unusual, but any cellist will hate it, myself included.

In contrast, the cadenza in the Symphony-Concerto demonstrates an exemplary, extremely polished cello technique, and acts as a showcase. It is hard to see how Prokofiev could have written such a cellistic piece of music without any advice from Rostropovich. There are other examples of Rostropovich's corrections, mentioned by him in our conversations. The end of the first movement in the Symphony-Concerto is one of them. Instead of the uncomfortable passages starting at the fifth bar after fig. 10 in the Concerto, Prokofiev introduces a perfectly "cellistically" appropriate figuration, although more traditional, at fig. 24 of the first movement of the Symphony-Concerto.

A further example is the use of octaves and double stops. In the Concerto Prokofiev uses them a lot, but mainly in the fashion of octaves / double stops in piano texture. He must have thought that these would reinforce the line (as it does on the piano), but in reality octaves played on a cello only make the melodic line weaker, as they are to be played with the thumb, in other words, with a fixed hand, without much flexibility and without any possibility for vibrato. Completely different and very effective are the octaves in a marcato context in the Symphony-Concerto's second movement (second bar of fig. 22).

In the Concerto (Finale, fig. 79), Prokofiev introduces two voices played by the soloist: one of the most difficult and uncomfortable (if not unplayable) episodes in the entire Concerto. This episode, without any doubt, influenced Shostakovich in his first Cello Concerto's cadenza, when the cello plays the tune of the second movement in double stops. But in Shostakovich's Concerto, although the cello writing may be difficult, it is comfortable, unlike Prokofiev's, even though the idea itself is striking and innovative. In the Symphony-Concerto all the double stops are very convenient to play, partly because all of them have been adapted to the technical possibilities of the cello. One of the most convincing examples — the parallel sixths, octaves and tenths in the cadenza of the Symphony-Concerto, which are almost glissando — is a relatively simple device, but highly effective. A cellist doesn't need to constantly change the configuration of the fingers or the position of the hand, it is enough just to move the hand and keep the position (more or less similar to the post-modernist George Crumb's "sea-gull" effect).

The E-major arpeggio-like figurations at the end of the Concerto's Finale (fig. 92) are not effective enough. Prokofiev changed them in the Symphony-Concerto for extremely effective, yet very similar ones right at the end of the coda — just before the final and exciting orchestral tutti. The solution is very simple: delete the slurs and play these arpeggios separately (surely, this idea must have come from Rostropovich).

Another example: the transposition of the second tune one semitone down in the second movement of the Symphony-Concerto (fig. 7, second movement). It immediately sounds so much brighter, whereas the same material in the Concerto (written a semitone higher) doesn't project well enough (fig. 19, second movement).

Finally, the broken arpeggios in the Concerto serve mostly as a rhetorical device (see the very end of the coda in the Finale — Meno Mosso, 6 bars before fig. 96). They do not really add any density or articulation to the music. They are not eloquent enough, nor could they be from a technical point of view, as they are written over four strings in a low register. In the Symphony-Concerto (number 36, second movement) Prokofiev introduces a background of brilliant arpeggios (with some elements of ricochet and in ensemble with the tambourine). This is one of the most exciting moments leading to the outburst of the coda. Here arpeggios are used mostly as a percussive rhythmical device, which works extraordinarily well.

When I recently played the Symphony-Concerto with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in St. Petersburg, my friend the composer Alexander Knaifel (formerly a cellist, and a student of Rostropovich), said to me: "This is clearly Slava's self- portrait" Whether it was from direct collaboration, or just from the impression made by performances in the composer's presence, it is nevertheless quite clear that the Symphony-Concerto is a work influenced by Rostropovich to a significant degree. Some may not like it (like Richter), but it is hard to deny it.

When Nikolai Miaskovsky saw the score of the Cello Concerto he wrote, "I had a look at Prokofiev's Cello Concerto: the music is good, but the form isn't".[24] So is the Cello Concerto No. 1 a good work or not? And was Sviatoslav Richter correct when he accused Rostropovich of having had a negative influence on Prokofiev, remarking: "This is in fact the work now called the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, the third movement of which has suffered a great deal from the revisions inspired by the (almost great) cellist to whom the work is dedicated. I'll never forgive him for this."[25]

Perhaps Gregor Piatigorsky offered the best answer to the question as to which of the two compositions is best: "I am grateful that there are now two major works for the cello by this great composer and unforgettable man."[26]

The Cello Concerto (1934-38) and the Symphony-Concerto (1950) are two profoundly different works in texture and size, despite the fact that much of the melodic material from the former piece is used in the latter. The themes, however, are very different in character, more abrupt in the Concerto and much longer in the Symphony-Concerto. The basic idea of the development is different in both compositions, especially the role of the finales. The Concerto's Finale is longer but less focused; it goes in different directions, away from everything stated previously. In fact it is a tragic, pessimistic finale, with a certain funereal flavour, but also, as is typical of Prokofiev, with some elements of mockery, as in his ballet, Chout (1920). Prokofiev makes very clear his reluctance to make a bold full stop or to emphasise anything at the end. In its complexity and density, the Concerto is still very much a piece of early Prokofiev, in the Russian style of the 1920s-30s as seen in Medtner, Anatolii Alexandrov, Roslavets and Lourié. In this work the composer's mind frequently goes back and forth, often retrospectively, with a good deal of resignation. Nor is there any strong evidence of development.[27]

In contrast, the Symphony-Concerto's Finale is scherzo-like, while the scherzo in the second movement could be the real finale, so impressive and dramatic it is. Here, perhaps, we are dealing with a strategy typical of Soviet composers, to exchange the scherzo and the finale, in order to make the final movement more cheerful, playful and therefore not "dangerous" in the eyes of Soviet officialdom.[28] However, the final section of the Symphony-Concerto is much more monumental and effective, much clearer in its intentions than the conclusion of the Concerto.

The Finale of the Symphony-Concerto is a special case. As Richter recalls:

There was a passage in the Finale that Prokofiev unfortunately later cut, at Rostropovich's request, a very interesting passage in which the soloist plays triplets against semiquavers in the first cello in the orchestra. It was a marvellous passage, but Rostropovich, wanting to create more of an impression, insisted that Prokofiev change it… He got his way and the new version is undeniably effective, but the music lost something by being rewritten, and the very end of the Concerto became somehow more ordinary. Will it ever be possible to reconstruct the original? I very much doubt it.[29] .[…] It's complicated as nobody knows where to dig up the score.[30]

There is one rather enigmatic moment in Richter, the Enigma, a documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon (1998). When the fragment of the first performance of the Symphony-Concerto (then Cello Concerto No. 2, conducted by Richter) is shown, we hear the Finale of the Concertino Op. 132 (fig. 3-4, with Zakharov / Liuban's theme)! Visually the performance is definitely conducted by Richter. This could not have been filmed later, since the concert was Richter's one and only appearance as a conductor. And the cello part is definitely played by a young Rostropovich who looks similar to his other photos of 1952, not of 1960, when the Concertino was finally premiered in Kabalevsky's orchestration. Therefore, the last, final version of the Finale of the Symphony-Concerto is indeed dramatically different from what was actually played on 18 February 1952.

The Cello Concerto is still very much a work of the early Prokofiev, a volcano of sparkling and sometimes rough ideas, which makes it very attractive, but a rather unusual piece in the concert repertoire, if at times unplayable. The Symphony-Concerto is a brilliantly cellistic work, with a very wide range required from the cellist, who has to play in extremely high registers — "just under the cupola", as Shostakovich once remarked about the very end of the work, where the cello is playing in the third octave. The intensity of the cello tone is enormously increased. The long melodies and endless phrases, typical of the composer, require a special, powerful bow-arm and immaculate bow-changes. Equally unusual is the structure of the piece, with its fast central movement. The mixture of many different tunes, following each other and forming the mainstream of a sonata allegro pattern, is also a novelty, requiring the performer to understand it and give it shape.

But the question arises: how did it come about that the Symphony-Concerto became so much longer than the Concerto and why does it have much longer development sections? Was it Rostropovich's influence with his cellistic ideas, or rather Prokofiev's own experience on Soviet soil with his new style as implemented in his cantatas and late symphonies? I think the difference between the two compositions reflects the general difference between Prokofiev's pre-Soviet and Soviet styles. In the Symphony-Concerto Prokofiev, as in his cantatas and Soviet symphonies, provides more introductions, a more consistent, standard development, larger development sections, more bridges, less surprising changes, music more repetitive in character (including the already mentioned superstitious "three"), a different attitude towards the finales and their meaning. More symmetry, more development, much longer and much more expressive melodic lines. Monumental and epic instead of spontaneous and capricious. Marble (the favourite decorative material in Stalin's Moscow underground) instead of the lava of a volcano.

Prokofiev's wonderful melodic gift, still quite hidden in the Concerto, is very evident in the Symphony-Concerto. He was undoubtedly one of the best melodists of the twentieth century. The inspirational sources of these melodies can be quite surprising sometimes. Just as Erich Wolfgang Korngold changed his style to became a prolific film composer in the USA, so Prokofiev wrote music for Soviet films and many ballet scores in Soviet Russia. Just as in Soviet propaganda and film music (songs by Isaac Dunaievsky, for example, with almost direct quotations from Bach, Beethoven, Mahler or Wagner's tunes), Prokofiev also tried to incorporate organically some important Western classical and Romantic idioms into his rich and most impressive melodic style. It is not by accident that he asked Rostropovich to bring him operatic arias by Bach, Handel and Gluck when he wrote his unfinished Concertino. The melodic profile of the Symphony-Concerto is stunningly beautiful and can be compared with the best tunes by Gluck, Schubert, Rakhmaninov or Saint-Saëns.

Prokofiev's Concerto is a great work, still untouched by the Soviet regime. In contrast, the Symphony-Concerto shows the Soviet touch. But unlike many other late compositions by Prokofiev, it deals with material from his early period and retains its freshness. Thus it is surely one of Prokofiev's most astonishing late compositions, full of youthful energy, melodic fantasy and expression, and with a spirit of true independence.

I know Prokofiev was not a religious man. But when I play the Finale of the Symphony-Concerto (particularly the last bars in the third octave), I always experience the clear sensation that this amazing (and still quite unique) passage is the image of a very small gateway to Paradise (according to the Russian Orthodox image, it should be smaller than the eye of a needle). In these last four bars Prokofiev escapes from all official pressure, all Soviet hindrance, all personal problems, and is granted complete freedom. Like a soul liberating itself from the physical yoke of a dying body.



1. One of the completed movements of this unfinished Sonata, the Fugue, is still unpublished. In conversation with the author, Mstislav Rostropovich confirmed that the manuscript was in his possession. Its location, however, is unknown to me. As most of Rostropovich's archive is now in the process of being moved to the family house in St Petersburg, it is likely that the manuscript will be placed there. []

2. The Cadenza in Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No 1 is a separate movement, and its "development" function in the form of the complete Concerto, its texture and pyrotechnics are clearly influenced by Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto. Shostakovich himself mentioned this on several occasions (see Shostakovich's statement in an interview published on 6 June 1959: "Tvorcheskie plany Dmitriia Shostakovicha", Sovetskaia Kul'tura. His Second Cello Concerto is a real Symphony-Concerto (like Prokofiev's own), inasmuch as the orchestra plays a most important role in dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. []

3. Piatigorsky, Gregor, Cellist (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1965), chapter 26. http://www.cello.org/heaven/cellist/index.htm, accessed 6 September 2009. []

4. Ibid. []

5. Not long afterwards in February 1948 at a special meeting of the Composers' Union, Prokofiev was branded as a "formalist" and his works banned. []

6. "Rostropovich se souvient de Prokofiev: 'Un na?f aux yeux gris'". Le Monde, 28 November 1986, 12.
There are many moments in the Cello Concerto when the solo cello is totally inaudible. Even Steven Isserlis, who always uses gut strings, used metal ones for his Manchester performance of Prokofiev's Cello Concerto in 2003 — the first time in his life he had done this, as he admitted to me then.
 []

7. That same evening Prokofiev said he would like to compose a new cello sonata for Rostropovich. Soon afterwards Rostropovich gave the first (closed door) performance of Prokofiev's Cello Sonata in Moscow on 27 September 1949, with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano. []

8. Detailed information on the several stages of Prokofiev's work on the Symphony-Concerto can be found in a brilliant book by Vladimir Blok: Violonchel'noe Tvorchestvo Prokof'eva (Moskva: Sovetskii Kompozitor, 1973).  []

9. The work is often called Sinfonia Concertante, which is wrong. In the first place, the Russian title is "Simfoniia-kontsert", not "Kontsertnaia Simfoniia" (which would be a Russian equivalent of Sinfonia Concertante), as in the case of Mozart, Haydn or Bortniansky's works. Secondly, the title "Simfoniia-kontsert" implies a large and important role for the orchestra. It is really half-concerto and half-symphony. This is why I prefer to call it Symphony-Concerto on all my recordings, including the recent Ivashkin plays Prokofiev Chandos album. All my comments about my own performance refer to this album (CHAN 241-41, Prokofiev's Complete Cello Concertos and Sonatas, 2008).  []

10. I recall my student years (with the Symphony-Concerto as my graduation piece), when fellow-cellists laughed at me for daring to learn this work, at a time when it had long been regarded as fiendishly difficult, dense, almost "mad". []

11. This tune was arranged for the Piatnitskii Choir by its director, a mediocre official composer, Vladimir Zakharov, who appeared to claim it as its own. Zakharov publicly accused Prokofiev of plagiarism. Earlier, in 1948 Zakharov criticised Shostakovich for his lack of melodic gift and public appeal (see Soveshchanie Deiateli Sovetskoi Muzyki v TsK VKP (b) (Moskva: Pravda, 1948), 20-25. Prokofiev used this tune again in his Concertino for Cello and Orchestra Op. 132 and in his Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 133, merely attempting to make fun of Zakharov. In the Concertino the tune sounds like a mazurka, and in the Sonata — like a minuet. The text of this song is used in Prokofiev's cantata Songs of our Days Op. 76 (1937).  []

12. "While working on his concerto, he invited me to spend the summer with him at his country home. I spent two summers at Nikolina Gora and saw a great deal of him during the following winters." See Shlifshtein, S. (ed.), S.S. Prokofiev: Materialy, Dokumenty, Vospominaniia.(Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe Muzykal'noe Izdatel'stvo, 1961), 472. []

13. "Prokofiev honoured me by saying that he wished to revise the Concerto with my help… He even asked me to compose some of the passages, but when I did so he always made some small but significant changes, leaving me wondering at how narrow, yet unbridgeable, is the gap between the mundane and the sublime." []

14. A facsimile of this page was published in Blok, V.M., Kontserty dlia violoncheli s orkestrom S. Prokof'eva.(Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe Muzykal'noe Izdatel'stvo, 1959) 17. The dedication, in Prokofiev's own handwriting, reads : "Dedicated to the outstanding talent Mstislav Rostropovich in memory of our collaboration on the Concerto." []

15. Simon Morrison. The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 377. []

16. http://blog.oup.com/2009/02/rostropovich/ Accessed 6 September 2009. []

18. See Rostropovich's recollection on Prokofiev's taste for extreme timbres in his Preface to A Schnittke Reader, ed. Alexander Ivashkin (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002), viii. []

19. Alexander Stogorsky was one of the most eccentric and underestimated cellists of the twentieth century. He premiered many great works, including Alexander Mosolov's Cello Concerto and Prokofiev's Adagio, and discovered and published dozens of unknown cello masterpieces, including the original version of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations, so popular today.  []

20. In conversation with the author at a masterclass in Florence, 6 October 2006.  []

21. "Prokofiev's ostinato drives me mad. It fires everyone immediately. With ostinato Prokofiev entered music history and will be remembered. If one plays this ostinato slightly romantically, everything is ruined, everything should be 'made of iron' — rhythm, tempo, articulation." (Mstislav Rostropovich at his Florence masterclass, 6 October 2006. Recorded by the author.) []

22. My friend and colleague, the violinist Mark Lubotsky (b. 1930), told me in 2004 that Shostakovich used to say to him: "You have to 'stomp' on the spot before you move elsewhere". Shostakovich often repeats the same pattern twice before moving ahead. Examples of this are numerous: the beginning of the First Cello Concerto, the first movement of the 15th Symphony, the Finale of the 6th Symphony. Any change always comes after the second attempt. This principle applies to rhythmical structure, motif development and general structural patterns in Shostakovich's music. []

23. This has been corrected (probably by Rostropovich), in the Symphony-Concerto (Finale, fig. 7), where arco and pizzicato are separated by a short pause. []

24. Lamm, Olga, Stranitsy tvorcheskoi biografii Miaskovskogo (Moskva: Muzyka, 1989), 230.  []

25. Monsaingeon, Bruno, Sviatoslav Richter: notebooks and conversations (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 339 (a fragment from Richter's notebooks dated 10 October 1990). Richter had only three rehearsals with the orchestra before the concert. Perhaps his bad feeling about the new work was partly determined by an accident. He almost fell down when he went on stage. He never conducted again. Richter (then a student) also acted as accompanist when the first performer, Lev Berezovsky, was learning the Concerto No. 1 in 1938. []

26. Piatigorsky, Cellist, chapter 26. []

27. Perhaps this early feature of Prokofiev's music inspired Alfred Schnittke to start his Prokofiev lecture of 1991 with a rather surprising statement about the lack of progress in human history (see Ivashkin, A Schnittke Reader, 61). []

28. Thus, Shostakovich's finales are in fact often scherzos (or simply "jokes"): Symphonies No. 6, 9, and 10 are very good examples. Prokofiev did the same thing in his second, official version of the ending to his Symphony No. 7. []

29. Monsaingeon, Sviatoslav Richter, 65. []

30. Ibid., 340. The original manuscript of the Symphony-Concerto is in the Rostropovich family archive and at present is not available for perusal. []