SERGEI PROKOVIEV – The Two String Quartets

Russian composer Sergei Prokoviev [1891-1953] wrote two string quartets, both of which are in three movements.

A prancing, melodious violin passage opens the first quartet. A touch of melancholy arrives, but the violin pushes through it with intervallic leaps before settling again. The feeling increases in intensity, and with rhythmic thrusts from the violins; it becomes a little chaotic. Now the opening atmosphere returns, with the second violin providing wonderful supporting melodies. This is an extended passage, which eventually leads into a brief period of uncertainty, before the opening is revisited. The final moments are contrasting, and rhythmically incisive; the end comes with a solid chord.

The next movement, marked andante and vivace, starts in a melancholy mood guided by the violins. After a time, the violins leap into action and the viola and cello pick up on the motion. The andante is left far behind as the music is stretched tight, and the violins are positively dynamic. There is a great feeling of forward movement in this passage. It continues to grow more intensely rhythmic, with many chordal punctuations. Now a solo cello part breaks this mood and brings a warmth to proceedings. The cello continues as the violins return, and is magnificent. Eventually, and it is for quite a while, the violins parry with the cello to the end. This is a most satisfying experience.

The final movement, again marked andante (with no qualifier), begins in a minor key with violins repeating phrases as the cello quivers in the background. The violin melodies are particularly attractive, and distinctly Russian, with the musical feeling of strength that many Russian composers seem to possess. Strong chords now predominate for a short time, before the andante tempo returns. There is a gradual melodic development and the cello is superb in the accompaniment. Suddenly, the mood becomes heavy, with chords projecting in a minor key. A cello-based theme develops, but it is only for a short while as the work returns to the opening. The rhythm resumes and leads into a strong solo cello melody. This is followed by gentle violin melodies that lead to a wistful violin and cello conclusion.

This is a passionate work, in a very conservative style; no modernity here. It was written in 1930 and can be contrasted with the feeling of the later work.

The second quartet, titled On Kardinian Themes, has a stately disposition. Violin melodies assert themselves over a static background, which occasionally dissipates, leaving the violins to go it alone. A pause brings about a new mood which settles into a measured march-like tempo, while one violin crafts various pleasing melodies. Suddenly, the work is hectic with dissonant chords being superimposed over the violins. The chords continue but the dissonance gives way to a rhythmic motif, while the violin investigates various melodic possibilities to the end, which is strong.

The second movement starts with lamenting violins and a gentle melody, which is slowly developed. This is a terrific, atmospheric passage. Now the feeling is slightly more insistent but the basic melodies persist, as the passage morphs into a tempo. It definitely has a Russian feeling; the rhythms are quite stiff. This section is vaguely reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero, with the rhythm predominating. Now we have a change in mood; there is no tempo and things become very quiet. A brief pause introduces an achingly beautiful, solo cello passage, which stirs the violins as they flutter above with sympathetic melodies. The cello persists, again solo, and concludes the movement. Oh, what a feeling!

The final movement has an underlying intensity with the ensemble creating another of those military march-like tempos. A rhythmic motif is created, allowing the violins to strut above the tension. A violin quivers feverishly, and various types of sounds are produced at different moments in the piece. The tension is eventually relieved, and a brief pizzicato interlude introduces another taut section. The cello goes it alone in a stunning solo passage. Now the violins take up the challenge and we have further tension. There are more dissonant chords and prominent cello as the violins take a back seat. They eventually emerge in an abstract manner and investigate pizzicato possibilities. As we near the end, the military tempo returns and is maintained by the violins until the quartet finishes on a chord.

I would have to say that the second quartet is even more passionate than the first. It was composed in 1941, which would have been military times in Russia, and it shows. Again there is nothing modern about this quartet. I would speculate that Prokofiev’s work was influenced by the political climate of his times, similar to Shostakovich’s constant political experiences. For those interested in such things, I found an interesting internet article on Stalin and Prokoviev, here.

These two works are brilliantly performed by the Pavel Haas Quartet. I should also mention that their version contains a third work, Sonata For Two Violins.

There are at least a dozen pairings of the two quartets available on Amazon US or UK. Most have another piece to fill out the CD. The Pavel Haas Quartet version is on Spotify and there are many versions on YouTube.

Listenability: Very emotionally charged works, definitely of their time. No Modernism here.

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