From Russia with love

Conductor Valery Gergiev reflects on how Sergei Prokofiev influenced his career

In 1991, just as the Soviet Union came to an end, conductor Valery Gergiev launched a new festival celebrating the life of Sergei Prokofiev. The idea was to introduce his music to the West, where many of his compositions were still largely unknown. Now 25 years later Gergiev is bringing his Mariinsky Orchestra to London to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Profokiev’s birth. In this exclusive blog for IAM Gergiev reflects on his growing admiration for the Russian composer’s music. 

When we speak of Prokofiev today it reminds me of a special moment in my own musical upbringing. It was a Prokofiev piano etude in C minor, and when I first heard it as a 10-year-old it changed something inside me. My perception of playing the piano was altered forever; it made me feel unlike anything else. It took hold of me and possessed me. This is how I fell in love with Prokofiev.

Like many young musicians I became interested in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as well as many Russian composers. They became my musical vitamins, allowing me to grow in my own abilities. But it was Prokofiev’s combination of physical, imaginative and theatrical elements that provided that first musical jolt for me – in a word, he was ‘edgy’.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to become familiar with his scores: Prokofiev’s music was alive and in the very good hands of great conductors like Yevgeny Mravinsky and instrumentalists such as Mstislav Rostropovich and David Oistrakh, who would play their favourite sonatas, concertos or chamber music every month of their lives.

There were recordings available and performances on Soviet television. In Russia, Prokofiev had entered into the list of 20th century giants.

People have said that with his Symphony No 1 Prokofiev wrote the best Russian symphony since Tchaikovsky. I think the most important thing about this symphony is that you will never forget it once you have heard it: it will always be in your heart and head.

Prokofiev was immediately the complete musician – there is nothing about his compositions that you want to make shorter, longer, lighter or stronger. It is like a miraculous bridge back to Haydn’s times, where music had a sense of humour and elegance, as well as an electric energy.

His language differs from every other Russian composer. In Symphony No 1 the complete composer is there for ballet (he used the minuet again in his Shakespeare ballet Romeo and Juliet), for opera and for symphony. He uses each instrument in his orchestration for a quick portrayal of character. You only have to hear three or four notes to draw breath at how brilliantly vivid they are.

I believe there is no composer who has made such a big jump – or taken such a big risk – as Prokofiev did from his first to his second symphonies. In the short time between the composition of the two pieces he changed everything.

He was a man who would never repeat himself, not even his favourite tricks or habits. He would always look for something new and his artistic conscience would say to him ’What’s next?’ He responded to the times, as shown by the extraordinary Symphony No 2.

Prokofiev was also a man of the theatre, and with his third and fourth symphonies he brought in elements of theatrical language and experience. He was never far from the world of the arts impresario Diaghilev; not only musicians, but also the great painters and designers who shaped the world of theatre – and in particular the world of ballet.

He used elements of his opera The Fiery Angel in his third symphony, and parts of his biblical ballet The Prodigal Son for his fourth.

While the music in these is spectacular it is also sparse. It makes a quick impression, and then moves on to the next image. In these pieces the line between theatre and symphony is never clear.

Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev possessed the fantastic gift of being able to play with theatricality in his symphonies, while also playing with the unknown and the mystical.

Then came WWII, which changed everything. After the war, Prokofiev entered a new season in his work, that was quite different from his earlier work. This is to do with the separate parts of his life. His sixth and seventh symphonies are part of the autumn of his life, fallen leaves in a forest.

By this point, Prokofiev was absolutely not an old man – he was full of creative energy and ideas – but in the power and imagination of these works you can sense that the anxiety and drama of the times led him to compose with a certain sadness, albeit expressed with great beauty.

Symphony No 7 is also famous for addressing youth: everything in it is honest, elegant and without extremities. Some music he reworked from his unperformed incidental music for Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin. The finale is a vivace – and what a vivace! It is brilliant, but the end makes your heart his pain. Which he accomplishes In a few seconds, it only takes a moment for you to know that he is a great composer.

Today Prokofiev’s standing in Russia, is right up there with Tchaikovsky and Musorgsky. Young musicians especially are crazy about him, and they play his music with such red-blooded energy, combined with high lyricism and fantastic colouring that are all part of Prokofiev’s musical voice.

The range of his language is so striking, recognised by his growing reputation over the last 25 years. I love his music and I believe that as audiences hear more of it they will find a great composer whose vision will always surprise and delight them.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in Prokofiev’s full Symphony Cycle paired with his string concerti over three concerts at Cadogan Hall on 26, 27 and 28 September.