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Inside the Music: Eastern Promises

Discover more about classical music with our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Get ready for one of today’s great piano virtuosos in Prokofiev’s most dazzling piano concerto, a demonic work that puts huge demands on the soloist; the Russian composer wrote it to showcase his own staggering piano technique, but it also shows Prokofiev as one of the most melodically gifted composers of the 20th-century.

Two more Russian masterpieces make up the programme, transporting us first to Ancient Greece with a rare opportunity to hear the whole of Khachaturian’s evocative ballet; and then to the exotic world of 10th-century Persia – Rimsky-Korsakov’s perfumed symphonic poem brings to sensuous life a selection of stories from A Thousand and One Nights, its breathtaking orchestrations rich and seductive.

10 things you didn’t know about… Prokofiev

  • Prokofiev began composing at the age of five, and wrote his first opera aged nine.
  • He was a very fine chess player, and once defeated the future world champion José Raúl Capablanca. He also thrashed Ravel at chess.
  • One of his most famous works, Peter and the Wolf was written in under two weeks.
  • Prokofiev originally wrote a happy ending for his ballet Romeo and Juliet. Stalin ordered him to reinstate Shakespeare’s original tragic conclusion.
  • Born in 1975, Gabriel Prokofiev, the composer of a concerto for turntables and orchestra, is Sergei’s grandson.
  • Stravinsky once described Prokofiev as the greatest Russian composer of his age – after himself…
  • In June 1932, Prokofiev visited Abbey Road Studios in London to record his Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra.
  • Prokofiev abbreviated his signature to only the consonants in his name.
  • He wrote eight film scores, including the music for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky
  • Prokofiev died on 5 March 1953 – the same day as Joseph Stalin’s own death was announced.

VIDEO: Oliver Condy on Russian Music

VIDEO: Jonathan James on Scheherazade

Listen out for… 5 key moments

1. Khachaturian: Spartacus Suite – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia

The most famous movement in the ballet suite was once used as the theme tune for the BBC TV series, The Onedin Line, which ran for nine years until 1980. Just over two in, the main theme is repeated, with added strings. A magical moment.

2. Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, first movement, Andante – Allegro

After one of Prokofiev’s most beautiful, expansive tunes, the orchestra and piano take off like a couple of greyhounds from a trap. From then on, Prokofiev keeps our interest with imaginative ideas springing up again and again.

3. Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, second movement, Tema con variazione

Just under three minutes in, Prokofiev throws us off balance with a wonderfully deranged passage in the piano part, syncopated with the orchestra.

4. Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, third movement, The Young Prince and the Young Princess

One of Russian music’s most stunning melodies infuses this wonderful movement from the start – a rich feast for the ears.

5. Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, fourth movement, The Festival at Baghdad

Rimsky-Korsakov builds the tension up and up until, around eight minutes in, the storm claims Sinbad’s ship in a whirl of brass, percussion and chromatic woodwind.

Exotic locales and virtuosic pianism

As a naval officer, the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov certainly knew a thing or two about exotic travel. And this experience coupled with his love of fantastical stories, especially those by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, fired his exploration of the Orient. Not that he was alone in his interest in the far east – twenty years earlier, fellow Russian Balakirev had written an Oriental fantasy for piano entitled Islamey, and Borodin had depicted a trade caravan plodding across the Asian plains with In the Steppes of Central Asia. But Scheherazade was different – longer, more ambitious and more lusciously scored. That Rimsky-Korsakov had admitted knowing very little about formal music theory appeared to play to his favour – the four-movement symphonic poem, setting tales from A Thousand and One Nights (an ancient Persian text also known as The Arabian Nights) is awash with stunning melodies and rich textures, free of the strict, rigid foundations of a traditional symphony; near the start, you’ll hear a solo violin flying free from the rest of the orchestra while the depiction of the sea is as close to reality as you can get in music. Again, Rimsky-Korsakov’s experiences as a sailor came in useful… But it’s in the third movement, ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’, where the music truly blooms – the violin solo returns, this time nestled in music that looks forward to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.

Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s music is also inflected with Oriental flavours; given he was taught by a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, it’s no surprise that his music is also packed full of colour. And it developed its unique character early on as Khachaturian was employed by the Soviets in the 1920s to bring music to the outlying reaches of the Soviet Union. As you’ll hear in his 1955 ballet Spartacus, which tells the tale of a slave revolt against the Romans, Khachaturian’s music is immediately attractive, full of zest, evocative and atmospheric.

You’ll also find the opening to Prokofiev’s 1921 Piano Concerto No. 3 captivating, a work written to demonstrate the composer’s extraordinary pianism. In fact, Prokofiev’s close friend, the composer Miaskovsky suggested that ‘no one but you will be able to play it’ which has, thankfully, proved not to be the case… But only just. Pianists need considerable courage to tackle the helter-skelter passages, let alone imbue them with the required wit and magic. Luckily we have the world renowned Nikolai Lugansky to prove why Prokofiev’s masterpiece is one of the greatest concertos of the 20th century. Prepare to be thrust to the edge of your seat.

Further listening

Rimsky-Korsakov: Antar

Rimsky-Korsakov originally called the work his Second Symphony, but soon after insisted it be referred to as a symphonic suite. Like Scheherazade, Antar is based on a Middle Eastern tale, the composer again using oriental melodies and modes to bring his exotic ancient world to life. It’s stunningly beautiful and so subtly orchestrated.

Suisse Romande Orchestra/Ernest Ansermet (Australian Eloquence ELQ480)

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2

If it’s possible, the Second Piano Concerto is perhaps even more tricky to play than the Third. Just listen to the first movement’s cadenza (written on four staves!) and you’ll get a good idea why pianists are fearful of it. At the same time, however, it’s a ravishing piece.

Michel Béroff (piano), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur (Warner Classics 517 6292)

words by Oliver Condy