Rising star and fourteen year old cello sensation, Ifetayo Ali-Landing performs the piece that garnered her 53,000 views on YouTube and 8 million on Facebook.
Prokofiev, Classical Symphony
Saint-Saëns, Cello Concerto No. 1
Ifetayo Ali-Landing, cello
Franck, Symphony in D Minor
Sergei Prokofiev: Classical Symphony
By 1916/17, the year of the Classical Symphony’s composition, Sergei Prokofiev, then in his mid-twenties, had established an international reputation as an icon of the Russian avant-garde. Playing his own Piano Concerto No. 1, he had won the St Petersburg Conservatory’s piano competition, while his Scythian Suite had enjoyed a succes de scandale, with Glazunov himself, (a former teacher) among those storming out of the première in a fury.
The present work might therefore have been assumed by its title to indicate a step back for the composer - a chance to regroup and return to models from the past, perhaps. After all, it was the first of his compositions to incorporate lessons gleaned from the immersive study of Classical form prescribed by his final teacher Alexander Tcherepnin. However, this was not Prokofiev’s plan. Instead the work was intended specifically as a further provocation of his more conservative critics: an affectionate but pointed parody of the past, rather than a return to it.
Indeed, in important ways the Symphony represented additional forward steps for the composer: it was Prokofiev’s first attempt to write a large-scale work without the piano as an aid to composition; it (in tandem with the 1st Violin Concerto), was the first to fully explore the more lyrical side of his creative personality; and it exhibited an extreme terseness that was more striking than previous works in its contrast with the products of the Russian romantic school.
The Symphony is laid out in the typical four-movement form of its models:
A sonata-allegro, featuring reinterpretations of such Classical-era clichés as the “Mannheim Rocket,” spiced with devilish “wrong note” harmony, missing beats, and cadences into wildly unexpected keys.
A lyrical movement in ABA form, graced with exquisite and original touches such as the high tessitura of the opening violin melody.
Gavotta: Non troppo allegro
The traditional dance movement of the classical era reimagined as a French ballet (much as Haydn sometimes substituted country dances for the courtly minuet). The middle section features a drone.
Finale: Molto vivace
An exuberant romp, requiring very C20th virtuosity from the musicians
Camille Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 33
Camille Saint-Saëns’s long career unfolded over a time of revolutionary change in music, including the innovations of Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky. Throughout it all, he maintained an unwavering sense of who he was – a French composer, with a flair for transparent, colorful orchestration, but also an absolute mastery of classical German compositional technique. The result of this consistency was that, in the public estimation, he was considered first a prodigy (he gave an acclaimed piano debut at the Salle Pleyel in Paris at 10), then the revered composer of such masterpieces as Samson et Delilah and the Organ Symphony, and finally a respected relic of times past.
The Cello Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1872, right at the start of the composer’s most successful and prolific period. The work was considered innovative by the rather conservative critics of the time, because it compressed the regular three-movement concerto format into a single continuous whole. In Saint-Saëns’s ingenious design, an Allegro non troppo leads without pause into a slower minuet with cadenza, which then itself proceeds to a combination of recapitulation and finale. The concerto is a miracle of integration in other ways also: the solo cello’s opening theme (whirling, descending triplets, answered by a motif that rises and falls by step) contains within it melodic outlines that generate both the central minuet and the “new” 2nd subject of the finale.
The concerto was written for Auguste Tolbecque, composer of a notable set of études appropriately named La Gymnastique du Violoncelle. Thus, Saint-Saëns felt able to fully exploit the solo instrument’s virtuoso capabilities, creating both soaring melodies and scintillating passage work, all made audible through the wonderful transparency of the orchestral writing.
César Franck: Symphony in D minor
Like Saint-Saëns, César Frank initially came to the public’s attention as a piano prodigy, embarking on his first major tour at the tender age of 11. His evident musical talent was first nurtured but then, alas, exploited by his father Nicolas-Joseph: following the family’s move to Paris so that César might attend the Conservatoire, his compositional skills were downplayed in favor of the more lucrative concertizing. Eventually César settled into a career as celebrated organist and teacher, finding his way back to fulfill his youthful promise as a composer only in the final decade of his life. It was in this autumnal flowering that he produced D minor Symphony, the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, and the beloved Sonata for violin.
Now recognized as a masterpiece, and widely performed, the Symphony was at first poorly received by audience and critics alike. Because of the poisonous political atmosphere for those composers who, like Franck, admired, and to a degree emulated, the works of Wagner and Liszt, Franck’s new symphony could not obtain an independent professional première, and was instead presented by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. “The subscribers could make neither head nor tail of it,” Franck’s pupil Vincent D’Indy mourned.
No doubt the poor reception was partly because of lack of comprehension of the symphony’s unusual structure. The work represents a bold fusion between the German symphonic tradition, and the cyclic principles pioneered by Berlioz and continued most recently in Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony. Indeed, the 1st movement’s opening theme, expanded from the “Muss es sein?” motif from Beethoven final Quartet, Op. 135, is used as a recurring musical idea throughout the work’s three movements.
However, the most daring formal innovation is the 2nd movement, which functions at first as a slow movement and then, with the introduction of muted triplet 16ths in the strings, transforms itself into a ghostly scherzo, all the while maintaining a single large pulse. The movement features a celebrated solo for English horn.
The finale takes up themes heard previously, somewhat in the manner of Beethoven’s Ninth, but in a process of continuous development and transformation rather than initial quotation and rejection. The symphony ends in joyous D major.