AN 2 9900

Prokofiev & Stravinsky: On Stage

Album information

This disc features the Saulnier-Dyachkov duo in a program of captivating songs and dances from the ballets and operas of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, whose timeless character—or as Nietzsche might have put it, “untimely” character—allowed them to survive a period of great aesthetic and socio-political upheaval and immense ideological conflict.

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) were incontestably the two dominant Russian composers of the early 20th century. Stravinsky was ten years older than Prokofiev, but both made their breakthroughs at the same time, in 1910.

Still an unknown in his late twenties, Stravinsky became an instant star with The Firebird, a score written for a choreography based on an original idea by Sergeï Diaghilev, director of the brand new Ballets Russes. Diaghilev wanted to transform this figure from his native country’s folklore into a symbol of the unflinchingly modern renewal he intended to breathe into dance. Debussy, Ravel, de Falla, Satie and several other composers were in the audience the night of the work’s premiere in Paris. After the curtain fell, they all rushed up to Stravinsky to offer their congratulations. With Petrushka in 1911, and especially The Rite of Spring in 1913—which created a scandal with its precedence of rhythm over melody—Stravinsky quickly became one of the leading lights of avant-garde music.

Prokofiev: Ballade for Cello and Piano, Op.15

While Stravinsky’s star ascended in Paris, in Russia, Prokofiev, a former child prodigy of the piano and now barely into his twenties, began to amaze audiences as a composer as well. Suggestion diabolique (1910) and his first two piano concertos (1912 and 1913) feature exaggerated rhythmic figures and harmonies, demonstrating an uncompromising anti-romanticism. In this context, the Ballade for Cello and Piano, Op.15, composed in 1912, seems somewhat paradoxical. The theme that opens and closes the work—giving it a classic ABA’ ternary form—is as plaintive and romantic as one could wish; yet this merely emphasizes the striking modernism of the middle section, which blends Scriabin-like expressionism with Debussy-like impressionism in a highly original fashion.

The year 1910 was just five years after the Potemkin uprising of 1905, upon which Sergei Eisenstein based his silent film The Battleship Potemkin in 1925. The movie transformed that event into a symbol of the Russian Revolution, which finally broke out in 1917. But as early as 1907, not long after the mutiny was brutally put down by the Tsar’s soldiers, the poet Alexander Blok, a leader of the Russian artistic and intellectual community at the time, wrote, “In our hearts, a seismograph needle has twitched. A sense of impending catastrophe weighs on our minds.”

In European artistic circles, radical aesthetic changes would anticipate these impending catastrophes of World War I and the Russian Revolution that occurred in its wake. The first works of Stravinsky and Prokofiev were perfectly in keeping with this seething context.

In the post-war period, however, both composers felt the need, each in his own way, to seek out calmer wellsprings of their art: the songs and dances of their native Russia but also the music of the 18th century, which saw the High Baroque give way to the Classical period. And both composers, now recognized the world over as the greatest Russian composers of their time, took the road of exile. Although no longer a child prodigy, Prokofiev continued to tour as a piano soloist and promote his own compositions, traveling first to Japan and then to the United States. Stravinsky spent several months in Switzerland before settling in France, where his genius was first recognized.

Prokofiev: Love for Three Oranges, “March”

It was in 1919, while in the U.S., that Prokofiev finished his best-known opera, The Love for Three Oranges, based on a comedy by the 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi. The work abandons realism and psychology in favour of a character stylization more typical of commedia dell’arte, a genre for which Gozzi represented the swan song. Prokofiev wished to break with bourgeois theatre by creating a spectacle that had more in common with the emerging genre of cinema—something energetic and fast-paced like a Charlie Chaplin film, in which ordinary people triumphed through laughter. As a result, it is not the arias of this wild and animated score that hold our attention, but the “dances,” “processions” and, of course, the well-known “March,” for which the opera is famous and which the great virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich brilliantly transcribed for cello and piano.

Prokofiev: Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon)

In the 1920s, Prokofiev joined Stravinsky in Paris, where he composed three ballets for Diaghilev, including Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon). The ballet, as clownish as the opera that preceded it, was inspired by a popular Russian folk tale of Alexander Afanassiev, who played a huge role in popularizing Russian folklore. Stravinsky drew from these treasures more than once in writing The Soldier’s Tale, Renard, and Firebird. It was in fact Stravinsky who introduced them to Prokofiev, who was particularly enamoured by the wackiness of the tale “Chout” (see below). Roman Sapojnikov, another cello virtuoso, drew from Prokofiev’s ballet an entire suite for the instrument.


Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon)
Prokofiev ballet based on an old Russian folktale

One day, a Buffoon says to his wife (track 7), “Seven fools will soon pay us a visit. When they arrive, I will order you to set the table, and you will refuse in such a way that in a feigned outburst of anger, I will appear to kill you. While you are lying on the floor, pretending to be dead, I will take out my whip and continue to beat you. After two lashes, you will pretend to gradually come back to life. After the third, you will rise up and go to set the table. In this way, we will fetch a good price for the whip.” No sooner is said than done (track 9), and so the whip is sold for 300 rubles.

Upon their return home, the seven fools kill their wives and try unsuccessfully to revive them using the whip.

In a rage, they return to the Buffoon’s house, but he hides his wife, dresses in women’s clothing, and sits at the spinning wheel, pretending to be his own sister. The fools search the house high and low and, finding nothing, carry off the “sister” as a hostage. “She shall be our cook,” they say, “until the Buffoon is found.”

Now the seven fools have seven daughters of marrying age. Two matchmakers come to call with a rich merchant in tow. The seven daughters dance for him (track 11), but in the end he chooses the “cook”!

In the bridal chamber on the evening of the wedding, the new “bride” finds “herself” in a delicate situation, to say the least. She says to her husband, “Oh Dear! I do not feel well at all,” and implores him to lower her down from the window on the end of a bed sheet to take some fresh air. “You can pull me back up when I give the signal.” Full of concern, the husband agrees and in his wife’s absence dreams about what awaits him (track 8). But when he hauls the sheet back up, he finds not his wife, but a goat. “Help! Someone has turned my wife into a goat,” he cries desperately to his servants. They grab hold of the goat and begin to shake it to break the spell—so violently, in fact, that the poor beast dies.

Disconsolate, the merchant prepares to bury his “wife” (track 10). Suddenly, the seven fools arrive and exclaim: “it’s your own fault for choosing our cook!” Then along comes the Buffoon accompanied by seven soldiers. “What have you done? Where is my sister?” he cries to the merchant. The dead goat is brought to him, and in a feigned rage, he seizes the merchant by the beard and exclaims, “You take away my sister and bring me a dead goat? I should have you locked up for this!” To avoid prison, the merchant pays the Buffoon 300 rubles. And so all is well that ends well: the Buffoon and his wife double their profit on the whip, and the seven fools find seven sturdy soldiers to marry their daughters.


But, drawn by the hope of a better future for humanity promised by the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Prokofiev finally returned to Russia in 1932 to exercise his art in the service of the people. Despite the headaches of a distrustful bureaucracy, and because his music fell in line with the diktats of the state-defined aesthetic (“Soviet realism”), he was able to maintain the originality of his writing. From these latter decades come his two most famous ballets, Romeo and Juliet (1935) and Cinderella (1944).

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

The Saulnier-Dyachkov duo plays three scenes from Romeo and Juliet on this disc, the first two of which were transcribed by Jean Saulnier.

The pianist describes his process:

With his exceptional descriptive sense, Prokofiev created in his ballet Romeo and Juliet music of such beauty and immediate charm that one can listen to it with great satisfaction even outside of its dramatic context. In the three orchestral suites and piano suite that he drew from the ballet, he did not feel the need to strictly follow its dramatic structure; and in a similar spirit, conductors have assembled their own suites from Prokofiev’s original orchestral suites and the ballet. The version compiled by Michael Tilson Thomas, wonderfully performed and recorded with the San Francisco Symphony, seemed to me especially convincing. The dramatic flare of his approach made me want to attempt something along similar lines.

For this transcription, I chose “Tybalt’s Death,” which ends the first suite, and “Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell,” which makes up the core of the second suite.

The “Farewell” has been in our repertoire for many years. We were first drawn to the piece as much for its gorgeous melodies—which simply cry out to be performed on cello—as for its rich emotional content. The scene is almost an archetype of the cycle of birth, growth and death. At dawn, upon waking in Juliet’s chamber in an atmosphere of meditation and serenity, the lovers dance a final pas de deux. In the middle section, the love theme grows until it reaches an incandescent culmination, with all the while a sense of fate in the background. And at the end, at dusk, Juliet is alone, facing emptiness and eternity. Her theme is heard on the piano, transfigured almost to the point of dematerialization. At the end, the notion of time gradually dissolves.

The scene creates an even greater effect if approached from a dramatic climax, as is the case in the ballet. The unrelenting anguish and action of “Death of Tyblalt” contrasts the serenity and contemplation of the “Farewell.” The intensity of sound—the screams and fury—resolve into silence, into singing and acceptance.

In “Tybalt’s Death,” the dramatic pace is so quick that it becomes oppressive. The duels that Mercutio and Romeo fight with Tybalt happen one after the other and lead abruptly into a devastating funeral march. The listener hears what is almost a duel between cello and piano. The somewhat idealistic intention of recreating the heights of an orchestral sonority with only two instruments merely adds to the tension at the conclusion of this scene.

As in the ballet, the “Farewell” is followed by the “Dance of the Antilles Girls” or as it is sometimes called, “Dance of the Girls with Lilies.” This character piece, so light and suggestive, accompanies the young girls dancing beside Juliet, who appears dead.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

From Cinderella, Prokofiev himself arranged for cello and piano the “Adagio,” a pas de deux that serves as the ballet’s romantic climax, when Cinderella and the Prince meet at last. Mstislav Rostropovich later added to the “Waltz-Coda,” to which the two lovers dance elatedly, an elation that is brusquely interrupted, as we know, by the clock striking twelve…

Stravinsky: Suite italienne for cello and piano, from Pulcinella

For his part, Stravinsky ended his days in the United States, where he took refuge in 1939 when World War II broke out in Europe. But as early as 1920, he began an unashamed exploration of diverse and sometimes completely opposing aesthetic avenues, from the baroque pastiche of Pulcinella (1920), to various neoclassical forms in his concertos and symphonies of the 1930s and 40s, to atonal and serial music in his religious works of the 1950s.

Pulcinella, composed in pure commedia dell’arte tradition, is a classic story of amorous intrigue replete with unexpected turns, ruses and humour. Commissioned by Diaghilev, the score is based on concerti grossi by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. In 1932, Stravinsky teamed up with his friend Gregor Piatgorski to create from Pulcinella the delightful Suite italienne for cello and piano.

Stravinsky: Mavra

Mavra is an opéra bouffe Stravinsky composed in 1922; like Pulcinella, it is also written in the pastiche style. In 1938, he transcribed for cello and piano the opera’s anthem, a “Russian Song” sung by Parasha, the young heroine at the centre of the story as she dreams of love.

© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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