BBC Proms 2016 / 31: Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite & Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev’s relatively unknown Scythian Suite is a fun four movement tale scored with the composer’s trademark sounds and textures.

The first movement blazes with technicolour peril before leading into something far more evocative, shimmering with mystery, intrigue and the distant threat of something very ugly carrying something very sharp in its hand. The high-octane second movement contains a gripping string sequence with terrifying counter-melodies in the violas and cellos and terrifying militaristic brass fanfares. The third movement, in stark contrast, extols a pleasing eastern mysticism threatened on occasion by swirling strings and bassoon. Something is overcome during the fourth movement by a benign force of some kind, after which something awe-inspiring and almost certainly naturalistic sweeps across our consciousness and makes everything better.

Musically, there’s a strong narrative underpinning the whole thing. The joy of the work on a first listen is that even without knowing what that narrative is. The music constructs such a potent image throughout. This is a work which can stoke anyone’s imagination. I immediately fall in love with it for that reason alone.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 is the original version, that intended and written down by the composer himself. It’s the version that pianists suggested he adapt it to the one we now recognise instantly as Tchaik 1 today. The most obvious difference (there are many – far too many to go into) is in the opening bars of the piano solo. Gone are the ponderous chords full of Russian portent. In the original version, the chords are given a gentler ‘spread’ treatment, making for a far more accommodating opening. As we start from a less domineering place, the musical development that follows seems more natural, less contrived.

I’m thinking this (and noting those thoughts down in my notebook) on my late-running train into work this morning. I realise quickly that I have nothing to really compare it with. I know of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto (the revised version) but I don’t know it so well that I can pick out the differences immediately. I half-know these things, nowhere near as in-depth as I’d like to think I do.

There are moments when I feel as though the material is wandering a bit and end up yearning for the more tightly-written chamber works last weekend in Verbier. And maybe not immediately warming to a sometimes rambling composition is in itself an illustration of what I do know and what I don’t. If I knew it better, I wouldn’t be dismissing bits as ‘musical flummery’.

My mind wanders a lot on the train. It takes a lot to focus.

What I end up thinking about is the tyranny of knowledge in the classical music world. On the one hand, the industry I feel most at home in is also the industry which I suspect would laugh at my apparent inability to recall basic facts about compositional style, composer’s dates, harmonic progressions, and star’s names. I’ve certainly found myself in conversations with contemporaries and associates and discovered how unable I feel I am to spit out detail on command.

I should probably try harder. Or maybe, as in the last post, I should have tried harder to remember this stuff years ago. But it isn’t the detail which interests me, or rather, demonstrating I know the detail isn’t what is important to me. What’s vital is feeling it when you hear it, and then communicating what you felt after the occasion. Explaining why you felt takes all of the joy out of proceedings and, in turn, makes you look like a self-important self-aggrandising arsehole.

At the same time, the industry demands that kind of knowledge. In some cases, if you can’t prove your encyclopaedic knowledge then you’re judged as ignorant. But, articulate that knowledge and you’re at risk of putting people off. You can’t win in classical music.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto starts as a blissful lullaby, its main theme played in the wind and then subsequently the piano, is the most miraculous of creations. It’s a melodic idea that lulls without being too saccharin, and built into it’s very DNA is the hint that there may need to be a key change every time we reach the end of it. Sometimes I’m sure we’ve moved to a different key. Other times I’m not so sure. And I like that playfulness, that teasing quality to Tchaikovsky’s writing in this concerto. It’s a far more rewarding work than say some, if not all, of his symphonies.

The final movement bathes me in the musical equivalent of an end-of-day glow London offers every summer. A rousing conclusion to a mammoth wander through all sorts of surprisingly blissful states. This is the moment when I want the summer to go on forever. This is when the Proms presents itself its meaning to me: a daily opportunity to reflect on what I’m listening to. A summer-long workout of musical discovery.


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