SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19 (1917)
The year 1917 was a year of political upheavals that saw Russia turned on its head — the czar was toppled and the Bolsheviks (Lenin, Trotsky, et al.) transformed Russia into a socialist state. Sergei Prokofiev wanted none of that. Instead he retreated to the Caucasus to compose. And so, while Russia was in turmoil, he created such masterpieces as his Classical Symphony and the First Violin Concerto. Its premiere was scheduled for November 1917 in Petrograd, but with the unsettled political climate, the premiere did not take place until six years later. Meanwhile, worrying about what might happen to the arts and artists, the composer left Russia the next year to go on a "short" concertizing tour; but, with the exception of a stint in 1927 in the newly-constituted Soviet Union, he did not return to his homeland for 15 years. He traveled to Siberia, Japan, and the United States, and finally settled in Paris. Several violinists turned down the opportunity to perform the work, but eventually Marcel Darrieux, leader of the Paris Opera Orchestra, took up the soloist role under Serge Koussevitsky in 1923. The concerto had a mixed reception. On the one hand, Paris being a hot bed of the avant garde at the time, the progressives considered it too tame; and on the other, the conservative faction found the structure altogether too far-out. Fortunately, when performed the following year at the International Society for Contemporary Music it was an unqualified success. Unlike a traditional concerto, in which the movements are typically arranged fast-slow-fast, Prokofiev's concerto inverts that arrangement: the outer movements are of moderate tempo — for example, the composer described the ravishing opening as "pensive" — while the central Scherzo is a non-stop motoric display of jaw-dropping fireworks, including left-hand pizzicato passages and dizzying glissandi. The Moderato finale ends this 20th century classic ethereally, quietly, dreamily.