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Royal Northern Sinfonia Summer Chamber Music
Prokofiev Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Double Bass
The inventive harmonies and syncopated rhythms of Prokofiev’s Quintet remind us that it was originally conceived as a ‘circus ballet’ for a travelling dance troupe, whilst Beethoven’s serenade-like Septet shows us the composer at his most lighthearted, and was one of his most successful and popular works during his lifetime.
SERGEI PROKOFIEV 1891-1953
Quintet in G minor, Op.39
Tema con variazioni – Andante energico – Allegro sostenuto, ma con brio – Adagio pesante – Allegro precipitato, ma non troppo presto – Andantino
He’d left Russia in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, establishing his reputation as a pianist-composer through tours of the United States and Europe, but Sergei Prokofiev never lost homeland links to friends and fellow musicians.
From 1923 he was living in Paris, but remained a close observer of music trends and experiments in the emergent Soviet Union, and was fully prepared to learn from and develop them within his own art.
In a January 1924 letter to the composer Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) who’d studied alongside him at the St Petersburg Conservatory, Prokofiev – perhaps unwittingly – bared his own soul while pressing his friend to radically rethink his approach to composition:
“Concentrate on creating new methods, and a new technique, new orchestration; rack your brains in this direction, sharpen your inventiveness, no matter what it takes, strive for a good, fresh sound.”
His testament concluded: “Renounce the St Petersburg and Moscow Schools as you would a morose devil – and you will immediately feel not only the earth beneath your feet but even wings on your back.”
Paris was a particularly stimulating place to be at this time, with fellow Russian expatriate Igor Stravinsky also a presence, and Prokofiev was eager to invest his new enthusiasm into creative and stimulating projects.
A chance came that same year through a commission from Russian dancer and choreographer Boris Romanov (1891-1957) who’d established a base in Berlin for a travelling ballet troupe which incorporated a handful of musicians.
Perhaps mindful of how Stravinsky put similar limited resources to good use in his L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) of 1918, which involved just seven instrumentalists, Prokofiev agreed to compose music for Romanov’s ballet on the understanding that the music for the troupe’s five players would become exclusive to him as a concert piece from autumn 1925.
The ‘quintet ballet’, as Prokofiev called it, was ready by August that year. There had been no consultation with Romanov about how it would fit his choreography, but Romanov assured him it “would be fine for a piece of the grotesque” as the scenario was a reworking of his madcap 1913-14 St Petersburg ballet called What Happened to the Ballerina, the Chinamen and the Tumblers. The new version, he informed Prokofiev, would be called Trapèze and might involve ropes tightly stretched across the stage. “It will be possible for the dancers to leap on to the walls, if one can put it like that, and continue to dance in the air,” Romanov explained to the most-probably startled composer.
When the choreographer began requesting late changes, as well as two extra numbers, Prokofiev was beginning to tire of the project. He was eager to begin work on his Symphony No.2 in D minor, which had just been commissioned by conductor and publisher Serge Koussevitzky.
Meanwhile, Romanov’s ballet company was facing collapse after the financial failure of tours in London and Spain. When Trapèze made it to the stage in the provincial German town of Gotha, and neighbouring Hanover in November, attendances for Romanov’s ‘circus ballet’ were poor and a Berlin performance was not feasible.
What remained of the music, the Quintet in G minor, Op.39 in six movements for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass, was premiered in Moscow in March 1927.
The work opens at Moderato pace, the principal theme taking on rhapsodic form for the oboe, then the clarinet, against the drone accompaniment from violin and viola. After a short pause, two variations follow – the first of which is sombre and meditative, and the second passionate – if not frantic – giving the string players much more scope against the folk-like refrain presented by the wind before there’s a return to the oboe’s theme.
The double bass comes gruffly into its own at the start of the abrasive Andante energico second movement. Its theme prompts some angular variations from fellow players, but all ends on a harmonious note.
The vision of acrobats flying this way and that in Romanov’s ‘circus ballet’ gains some credibility in the rhythmically complex Allegro sostenuto, ma con brio third movement. It’s a highly syncopated and endlessly inventive section with more than one jazzy gesture from clarinet and oboe. Prokofiev warned at the time that this “quick, rushing *fugato*” would prove “most difficult” for both dancers and musicians.
The fourth movement comes in weighty contrast. The Adagio pesante is a sinuous dirge with passages for violin tremolo and it tramps heavily onwards through shifting sonorities. Only the oboe manages a sustaining line that keeps this sombre parade on course. The music flickers to life through a crescendo, and just as suddenly sinks back in a style that Prokofiev’s contemporary Béla Bartók would have recognised.
Gloom is swiftly dispelled in the Allegro precipitato, ma non troppo presto penultimate movement. The double bass seems about to spring into a jazz solo with his pizzicato entry, and there’s a definite festive mood among the fellow players. This happy music, making use of the work’s two main themes, seems just about to have exhausted itself before the clarinet perks up for a cheery concluding flourish.
The oboe and clarinet resume their opening-movement partnership in the quintet’s final Andantino section. Their conversation is soon peppered with strident phrases, out of which a fractured waltz from the strings tries to take a hold, encouraged by the viola’s pizzicato pulse. The double bass eventually intervenes as a calming influence, but its companions are determined not to call time on the revels just yet, insisting on one last scintillating display.
Overture reached its final form in 1929 as the first movement of the Divertimento, Op.43, and Matelote, heavily revised and re-orchestrated, served as its third movement.
A passage using the technique of a fugue, a complex musical form of which J S Bach was the acknowledged master. Fugato applies to music where only part of a fugue, usually an exposition, appears during the development of a theme.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN 1770-1827
Septet in E flat major, Op.20
Adagio; Allegro con brio – Adagio cantabile – Tempo di Minuetto – Tema con variazioni: Andante – Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace – Andante con moto alla Marcia; Presto
The young English musician Charles Neate visited Beethoven in Vienna in 1815 in the hope of being taken on as a pupil. In the event he gained useful advice rather than lessons, and the pair got on very well. At one point Neate, a German-speaker, told the great composer his chamber music was much liked in England, and that his Septet in E flat was admired most of all.
Neate was stunned by Beethoven’s sharp response – “I wish it were burned!”
Beethoven’s friend Karl Czerny was later able to confirm the composer’s antipathy towards such a charming and, in many respects, pioneering piece of music, noting that Beethoven “could not endure the Septet and grew angry because of the universal applause with which it was received”.
The problem was that Beethoven regarded the Septet as light, divertimento-style music and he was infuriated that it overshadowed what he considered to be his more profound works of this period.
It is not hard to understand why the Septet was liked so much – not purely for its delightful music for the listener, but also for the new opportunities it presented to its players. The work is scored for a violin, viola, cello and double bass, and three wind instruments – clarinet, bassoon and horn. Traditionally this sort of serenade music involved pairs of wind, but in the Septet Beethoven gives each instrument the freedom to sound its own voice, either solo or in combination with one or more of the others. This flexibility introduced for the first time elements of the symphony and the concerto – with the wind acting as support to the strings and vice versa, while the music at other times allows one instrument to soar above the rest.
The Septet in E flat was written during the winter of 1799-1800 and first performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater in April 1800 at a marathon benefit concert for Beethoven.
The Adagio introduction is slow and graceful – hinting at the opening of a symphony in its expansive high-seriousness – before leading to the brisker Allegro con brio section which highlights some virtuoso playing, from the violin in particular.
The Adagio cantabile opens with a song for clarinet which is then taken up by the violin. Later, the melody offers the bassoon and horn respectively a chance to shine.
The horn and clarinet take the spotlight in the Tempo di minuetto, the theme of which Beethoven took from one of his piano sonatas.
The fourth movement, Tema con variazioni: Andante, comprises a series of variations on a theme, namely a popular Rhenish folk tune, Ach schiffer, lieber schiffer, and offers some colourful interplay between the instruments.
Next comes a scherzo with the instruction Allegro molto e vivace – very brisk and lively. A clarion call from the horn regularly spurs some expressive playing here, especially from the viola and cello in the central trio section.
The frivolity of the Scherzo is replaced at the start of the last movement with something much more sombre, but soon a friskier pace develops and the mood lightens. Overlapping, fugue-like music eventually leads to a cadenza for the violin, and this in turn leads us into the concluding Presto passage for some dazzling playing.
Pianist and cellist Charles Neate (1784-1877) was a founder member of the Philharmonic Society of London, which would eventually commission Beethoven to write his Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op.125. Neate gave the first London performance of his friend’s Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 in May 1820.
Today it would be the concert-programmer’s dream: the premiere not only of the Septet but also of Beethoven’s groundbreaking Symphony No.1 in C major, Op.21. Then there was one of the composer’s early piano concertos, pieces by Haydn and Mozart, rounded off with an improvisation at the keyboard by the star of the show!
Italian for ‘singable’ or ‘in a singing style’.
All programme notes © Richard C Yates