Responsible Opposing Viewpoint
22 Feb 2011
Inside the Classics

My little anti-Prokofiev rant last week garnered a number of well-argued comments from all sides of the argument, which is always nice to see. (Oh, and for those of you keeping score, I went 2 for 3 on the opening lick I was complaining about in the last movement of the piece. Thursday and Saturday, I was all over it. Friday, my hand inexplicably fell off the fingerboard in the second bar, and I flubbed about 32 straight notes before regaining my bearings. Can’t win ‘em all.)

In addition to the comments left on the post, I also got into a fun e-mail conversation with former MN Orch staffer (and Prokofiev fan) Brian Woods, who had the time to engage my reactionary little rant because he’s currently laid up recovering from an argument his foot lost with a Metro Transit bus. With Brian’s permission, I’m reprinting some of our exchange here. Geek on!

Brian: Well, I just heard the Prokofiev on the radio. [He means our live Friday night broadcast on MPR.] I’ll start out by saying that I love this opera, and I’m also a fan of Prokofiev in general. It may very well be awkward for the strings (I take your word on this), but I’m not sure you can compare it to the effect that Adams was going for in the Earbox. The massed unison wall-of-strings sound is stunning to hear as a listener. The Adams is, as you mentioned, a sweep from bottom to top of the orchestra. I’ve heard the opera & suite several times, and I always find that rush of string sound really exciting.

As a pianist, I can say that Beethoven is a composer who writes very unidiomatically for the instrument. He has a sound and expression in mind, and writes it, damn the performer. Granted, he is a greater composer than Prokofiev, and is totally worth the effort. But I think Prokofiev is worth it too–he has a very distinctive sound and expression in mind too, and, as Randy would say on American Idol, he makes the orchestra his own, dawg.

Fair enough, though I’d like that to be the last Randy Jackson reference that ever gets made on this blog. I invited Brian to expand on his opinion, and the next day, he sent along a different recording of the passage to contrast with the one I’d posted, especially in tempo, which he thought could make the difference in playability. Here are both versions side by side. The lick I was whining about starts at 3:52 in the first video (mine) and 7:21 in the second (Brian’s.)

Louis di Froment conducting the Radio Orchestra of Luxembourg

Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne

Brian: I think after all is said and done, we’re talking about two different things. Playability for the musician, and effect on a listener. Two days later, I can’t honestly remember how Osmo’s tempo differs or not [from] these recordings. I still love the total sound effect of this passage, though.

I also think that over the last [eight] years that Osmo has been here, you and I (listener and player in general) have become so used to the highest level of technical playing from the Minnesota Orchestra that any little slip is noticeable. I can tell sometimes when Osmo is not on the podium. Execution may not be quite as sharp. At Friday’s performance, I frankly thought the opening of that lick was the sloppiest part. Everybody just didn’t start together for whatever reason. [That's right, kick me when I'm down. -Sam]

So, at the end, is Prokofiev satisfying to play for string players? No, apparently. Is he exciting to listen to for a fan of the music? Yes. We don’t know the awkwardness of the string writing (or any of the other parts).

Regarding my comments about Beethoven the other day… is the late string writing as awkward for your instrument? I’m thinking the last quartets or Grosse Fugue. The piano stuff I was mostly referring to were the late sonatas. Even though he was a pianist, those late works are awkwardness in the service of expression. And I know that most singers will say that his vocal works are super awkward for the voice. But my goodness, when all of that awkward stuff is performed well, what an experience! I don’t have to tell you that. Is it the same experience as Prokofiev?….I say no. But different in a good way.

Brian’s point about tempos is well taken, though I think some of the slop in Haitink’s version may be getting covered up by the audible swordplay on stage. (Also, this is a terrible thing to allege, but it sounds very much to me like there aren’t any violas in that version after the first bar or two. I hear only E strings in the high stuff, no viola A-string sound at all, and it’s the violas that have by far the toughest work to do at that point in the run. Is it possible Haitink told the violas to lay out? After all, they’re in the pit in that production, so who in the crowd would ever know the difference?)

Brian’s also right that it’s not really about me or any other musician in the end, which is why I stopped short of saying we shouldn’t be playing Prokofiev. Audiences love it, and when I’m not the one having to master the licks, I like a lot of it, too.┬áBad orchestration just annoys me, and though I’m not sure how I distinguish bad orchestration from awkward part writing, I do. Dvorak’s string writing is notoriously awkward (not so much late Beethoven for us,) as is Schubert’s on occasion. But in those cases, I don’t immediately see obvious solutions to the awkwardness the way I did with Three Oranges. So I guess my attitude could be summed up as: go ahead and make me sweat if you need to, but don’t waste my time if there’s a path of less resistance that would achieve the same end.

Still, I’m not the one paying for tickets or tuning in the Friday night broadcasts, so I’m giving this one to Brian. And (sigh) to Prokofiev, I guess.

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