Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major Violinist – Hilary Hahn

Prokofiev in 1916

Prokofiev in 1916

Prokofiev wrote his first violin concerto during the years 1915-1917, before leaving Russia in 1918 to seek fame and fortune in America.  It would not receive its premiere for another five years, however, on October 18, 1923 in Paris.  Marcel Darrieux was the soloist on that occasion, and Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Paris Opera Orchestra.

We learn from Wikipedia that, “The premiere of the work in the Soviet Union is also worth noting since it was given just three days after the Paris premiere by two 19-year-olds, Nathan Milstein and Vladimir Horowitz.  Horowitz played the orchestral part on the piano.  Milstein later wrote in his memoirs, From Russia to the West, ‘I feel that if you have a great pianist like Horowitz playing with you, you don’t need an orchestra.'”

Now, that was a performance I would have paid good rubles to attend!

In their fascinating biography of the composer, Prokofiev: A Biography in Three Movements, Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson write about the D major concerto as follows:

When he wrote this First Violin Concerto in 1917 many things had tamed (Prokofiev’s) natural exuberance: his mother’s illness, Miaskovsky’s absence, the uncertainty of life in a time of revolution, the dim future for music in Russia.  In consequence, the work reveals a Prokofiev so often hidden in his foreign years, the Prokofiev of The Ugly Duckling, whom Gorky, that man of feeling, had spotted at once.  It owes nothing to Mendelssohn, it is lyrical in the composer’s own fashion, and very pleasing.  If one looks for extravagant novelty or a complicated score they will not be found; what the concerto contains is something better, feeling expressed in contemporary terms.  It is not passionate, it is tender, and the more it is heard the better it seems…

Prokofiev had this to say about the lyrical aspect of his music: “This direction of mine was not allowed any serious existence until very much later and developed slowly because I was set down everywhere as a modernist, pure and simple, who for some extraordinary reason is not permitted the luxury of expressing or indeed of possessing feelings.”

In March 2010, violinist Hilary Hahn was interviewed by Jon Garelick for the Portland Phoenix, during which this exchange took place:

You’d think the Prokofiev Violin Concerto would have become part of the standard repertoire by now, but it’s actually not performed that often. What appeals to you about it?

It’s got this mercurial quality.  It’s always changing – just as you think you’ve got it pinned down, it shifts off in some other direction.  In a good way, not a distracted way.  I think Prokofiev just knows when to leave you wanting a little bit more and when to introduce a new idea.  I love the lyricism.  The way he wrote for all the instruments is both transparent and complexly interwoven.  It’s really beautiful – the moments that are kind of dreamy and mysterious – and then it’s really hard-hitting when he decides to go into something rhythmic.

Indeed, it is the lyricism of this piece that leaves the strongest, most lasting impression.

I came to love this concerto through one of my earliest records, a 1964 Columbia LP featuring Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy.  In this video, Hilary Hahn is joined by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel.  The three movements and their start times are as follows:

I. Andantino (00:00)

II. Scherzo: Vivacissimo (09:51)

III. Moderato – Andante (13:44)

Published in: on February 28, 2014 at 10:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Paganini’s Imperishable Theme

Niccolò Paganini

According to Wikipedia (my indispensable online reference source), Niccolò Paganini, who lived from 1782 to 1840, “…was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist, and composer.  He was one of the most celebrated violin virtuosi of his time, and left his mark as one of the pillars of modern violin technique.  His Caprice No. 24 in A minor, Op. 1, is among the best known of his compositions, and has served as an inspiration for many prominent composers.”

The author of that article might well have said “…an inspiration par excellence…”  Thought to date from 1805, this Caprice has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for composers from Paganini’s day to our own, but before listening to two of the pieces that owe their existence to it, let’s listen to Paganini’s original composition, as performed by the extraordinary Hilary Hahn.

The first composer to use Paganini’s theme as the basis for one of his own works was Robert Schumann, who wrote his Etudes After Paganini Caprices for solo piano in 1832.  Schumann was followed by Liszt, who adopted it in the sixth of his Grandes Études de Paganini, written in 1838 and revised in 1851.  Liszt was followed by Brahms, who wrote his epic Variations on a Theme of Paganini in 1862-63.

Enthusiasm for Paganini’s theme continued undiminished during the twentieth century.  Perhaps the best known work it inspired was Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, composed in 1934.  Shortly thereafter, Witold Lutosławski, a Polish composer who lived from 1913 to 1994, wrote his Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos in 1940-41, and revised it in 1978 for piano and orchestra.  This piece was my introduction to the music of Lutosławski, and I’m pleased to be able to introduce him to you.  It is the first version that we hear here, in a brilliant performance by the duo piano team of Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire.

That brings us to the present, or at least to the year 2011, when the incomparable Canadian pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini.  Concerning this piece, Hamelin writes, “The nature of my Paganini Variations is such that writing anything about them would inevitably spoil the fun and give many things away.”  With that in mind, I will say only that you should be on the qui vive for multiple allusions to other composers, and that Hamelin wrote this piece with tongue firmly in cheek.

Published in: on July 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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