The Composer Who Just Isn’t Worth It
15 Feb 2011
Inside the Classics

Annnnd we’re back! Apologies to anyone who was trying to access the blog over the last couple of days – WordPress apparently got its digital knickers in a twist over something or other, and we were wiped off the face of the Internet for a while there. But our awesome web guru, Jennifer Rensenbrink, spent about 86 consecutive hours on hold with tech support with absolutely no regard for her own personal health and safety, and she got this creaky old boat back up and running, so here we are, just in time for me to get good and cranky.

It’s this week’s repertoire that’s got me in a foul mood, to be honest. Not the Brahms, of course – Brahms symphonies are some of the most prized treasures of the entire orchestral canon, and I love them all. And it’s not the fiendishly difficult Aho clarinet concerto that we’re all sweating our way through in rehearsal. (Well, almost all of us are – soloist Martin Fröst sounds like he finds it about as challenging as Hot Cross Buns. The man is a wonder to behold.)

No, my issues are with that Russian giant of the 20th century, Sergei Prokofiev. And before I start getting all snitty in the general direction of a composer countless people adore, let me just say this. I have never minded a challenge. I have always loved tackling ridiculously difficult pieces of music, and I love the satisfaction of finally feeling a run of tricky passagework slip under my fingers like it belongs there after countless repetitions in which it felt hopelessly foreign.

But there’s just something about Prokofiev that’s utterly different from any other composer I can think of. Kalevi Aho’s music, for instance, is notoriously hard to get your mind and fingers around, but even as you slave away at your practice stand, you can’t deny that the man knows your instrument well, and knows just how far he can push it before something becomes unplayable. Ditto Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, John Adams, and Bela Bartok. All wrote music that’s right on the edge of playability, but in the end, it’s immensely satisfying stuff to master.

Not Prokofiev. To me (and again, Prok fans, this is a string player talking about string writing and playability, not a critic passing judgment on a composer’s entire body of work,) nearly everything the man wrote for orchestra seems to have been written to be played by instruments that do not exist in the real world. Even the simplest passages turn wildly awkward and unidiomatic at random moments; passagework that would be a breeze on, say, the clarinet, is awkwardly thrust into a cello part for no apparent reason.

If I had to guess, I’d posit that Prokofiev probably wrote nearly all of his music while sitting at a keyboard, and never gave much thought to how the lines he was writing would actually be played on violins, violas, and such. It sure feels like that, anyway. This week’s prime example comes in the final movement of the Suite from The Love For Three Oranges, which begins with… well, just listen. You’ll need to skip ahead to the 3:52 mark of this clip.

I should stress that this is a technically brilliant performance of that opening scamper in the violins and violas. I say brilliant because it doesn’t begin to utterly fall apart until the fifth bar or so, which is further than I’ve ever heard any other orchestra make it. It’s all the upper strings, in unison, trying to play a run of notes that couldn’t make less sense for our instruments if they were written in Martian. I’ve been practicing it for two weeks now,  and it just never gets any better. It’s too high, it’s too fast, and most importantly, it’s in the wrong part of the orchestra. Or at the very least, it’s scored incorrectly to make it in any way playable for strings.

That issue of scoring makes a huge difference as to whether music is merely difficult or actually unplayable. There’s a passage in John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, which we played on tour a couple of years back, that’s not too dissimilar from Prokofiev’s little charmer in several important ways. Sarah and I happened to shoot some video of it in London for a blog post about hearing each other on stage, so for the sake of comparison, here it is. The relevant string passage starts at 0:31

See what Adams did, there? He’s written a very tricky and treacherous run of notes, but he’s broken them up between the violins, violas, and cellos in such a way that nobody has to play all of them. So instead of just being a crushing wall of sound that keeps the passage from ever achieving the frenetic, fast-dance quality that the composer obviously wants, the melody dashes around the string section like a burst of electricity. Still a mighty challenge to play, but because of the composer’s skill and knowledge of the orchestra, a not insurmountable one.

I know. You think I’m being unfair to Prokofiev. You love Prokofiev. Who cares what I find playable or not playable? Maybe I’m just not good enough at the viola. Ever think of that?

Well, yeah. I’ve thought of that. But I’ve also heard that final movement of Three Oranges played by a number of really good orchestras, and I’ve never yet heard it played the way Prokofiev wrote it. Go back and listen to the clip – it wants to have that same feel that the Adams has. It’s crying out to be a joyous rip from the entire violin/viola squadron, the kind of exciting music that can physically propel a huge ensemble. But it’s not. It never is. It just winds up sounding like a lot of overly heavy, panicky, out of tune, out of sync scrubbing. And I’m sorry, but I’m calling this one the composer’s fault.

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