Prokofiev, String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92 (on Kabardinian themes)

Sergei Prokofiev, 1891-1953

String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92 (on Kabardinian themes), 1941

Sergei ProkofievSergei Prokofiev came of age in the 20th century and has remained both a popular and critical favorite of the period especially as a Russian / Soviet composer along with the elder Stravinsky and the younger Shostakovich. A child prodigy, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 13 and soon caused a sensation with his intensely percussive piano playing with a startlingly modern rhythmic vitality that would characterize much of his mature work. Prokofiev launched a career as concert pianist, composer and conductor and, shortly after the revolution, left Russia for several years living the United States and then Paris where a combination of misfortunes including lukewarm reception and a worldwide economic depression left Prokofiev feeling unfulfilled and unappreciated. He returned to the Soviet Union in 1936 where, despite some newfound success, he would eventually experience WWII and then, just following the war, the devastating state censure accusing him (along with several prominent composers) of degenerate formalism. Most agree that the latter cowed Prokofiev, dampening his creative spirit and sharply compromising his achievements as a composer during his final years. Despite all this, Prokofiev excelled as a freshly original composer with a substantial oeuvre comprising operas, ballets, symphonies, concerti, film scores, a cycle of piano sonatas and his enduring classic for children, Peter and the Wolf. Chamber Music occupies only a small part of his work but includes, besides a number of duo-sonatas, the Overture on Hebrew Themes, a quintet and his two highly regarded string quartets.

His sparkling second string quartet dates from 1941 when, due to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a number of artists and intellectuals were relocated to Nalchik in Karbarda. Once there, Prokofiev and fellow composer Myaskovsky were exposed to field recordings and live performances of local folk music and encouraged to compose music based on this, thus far, unexploited exotic traditional source material. Prokofiev wrote, “I felt that the combination of new, untouched Oriental folklore with the most classical of classic forms, the string quartet, ought to produce interesting and unexpected results.” Completed in just over one month, the second string quartet is precisely what he setout to achieve: a superb blend of vivid folk themes, textures and rhythms with the formal structure of a three-movement string quartet complete with sonata and rondo forms, a classical poise and Prokofiev’s distinctively original sensibilities.

The first movement is a lively and rather taught sonata-form movement sporting three themes, a daring development section and a clear recapitulation. The first theme establishes a thrust of aggressive vitality with a bold, jaunty march on a Kabardinian folk theme that writer Melvin Berger describes as “combining childlike naiveté with menacing belligerence.” The remarkable middle movement seems to do double-duty as both a haunting slow movement and a dance-infused scherzo, the latter erupting in the midst of the former. The beautiful slow-movement melody comes from a Kabardinian love song set in a hushed, almost impressionistic context perfumed with exotic “Orientalisims.” The central scherzo section transforms the love song utilizing a kinetic motif from the folk dance “Islambey”, a source of inspiration for other Russian composers going back to Balakirev. Recalling the bold, rustic momentum of the first movement, the finale springs from a regional mountain folk dance into which Prokofiev injects some of his signature agitation along with bright and piquant flavors and a sonata-rondo hybrid punctuated by solo cadenzas, development and recap in reverse order. Achieving an amalgam of authentic folk materials, skillful classical forms and the color swagger of personal originality, Prokofiev, on location, created a winning, modern string quartet.

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