Prokofiev’s Last Symphony

Photograph of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Dated 1950.

Sergei Prokofiev was truly one of the most remarkable composers of the 20th century. His signature disjunct melodies and quirky, perky compositional style is so interesting and unique that his music is instantly recognizable, even today. When critics complain that the wellspring of current musical idioms has become exhausted or derivative, along comes a composer like Prokofiev who surprises everyone and does something completely different. That is why I believe that even within established musical forms it is possible to invent something completely new and exciting—it just doesn’t happen very often.

Regrettably, no English-language documentary about the life and music of Prokofiev has ever been produced. While we wait for someone to do that, perhaps Robert Greenberg might add another excellent installment to his “Great Masters” series for The Great Courses by profiling Sergei Prokofiev in eight 30-minute episodes as he did for Shostakovich, Brahms, and others.

Sergei Prokofiev composed his last completed work, the Symphony No. 7, between December 1951 and July 1952 at the age of 60-61. Its first public performance in Moscow on October 11, 1952 would be the last public performance Prokofiev would attend. He died less than five months later.

Dmitri Shostakovich attended the premiere, and quickly sent a letter of congratulations to Prokofiev, “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.” Shostakovich would attend Prokofiev’s funeral in March 1953.

Iconic photo of the three greatest 20th-century Soviet composers, together. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Dated 1940.

The most inspired recording I have ever heard of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Andrew Litton conducting. Even though I was already familiar with this work, listening to this performance was like hearing the work for the first time. This interpretation is intimate and compelling.

BIS-2134

The last years of Prokofiev’s life were difficult ones. His health was deteriorating and Stalin’s terrible regime was a constant threat and source of anxiety. Official disapproval had led to a life of poverty for Prokofiev.

With that as a backdrop, Prokofiev was eager that his new symphony would be well received by the authorities as well as the public, hoping that it would earn him a First Class Stalin Prize—he needed the money. But like Shostakovich, Prokofiev took his symphonies seriously, pouring his heart and soul into them while cleverly embedding what he wanted to say musically in a way that would elude the authorities with their limited musical sophistication and intelligence.

Prokofiev even wrote two endings for the symphony. The “real” ending and a contrived ending to please the authorities and help him win the prize. (He did not win the hoped for Stalin Prize, but he was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize for this symphony in 1957.)

Prokofiev told his friend, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “Slava, you will live much longer than me, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” As Andrew Huth writes in the liner notes, “Both versions of the ending are included on this disc so that listeners can judge the very different effect each makes.” Track 9 is the final movement of Symphony No. 7 played again with the alternative ending that Prokofiev wrote to please the authorities.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) with Sergei Prokofiev

Joaquín Rodrigo: The (Almost) Complete Music for Piano

Recently, I wrote about the extraordinary orchestral music of 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999). In that piece, I lauded a collection of Rodrigo’s orchestral work, all conducted by the esteemed Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz with three different orchestras. Today, I would like to share with you the best and most complete recordings of Rodrigo’s piano music, a two-disc set by Gregory Allen and Anton Nel (two piano and piano four hands works).

I wish other music CDs had as much detail about each of the pieces as the enclosed booklet by Gregory Allen and Linton Powell has, nicely indexed by CD track in the margins of the narrative. They write: “The present recordings represent the first complete collection of Rodrigo’s original piano music for two and four hands, omitting only a few transcriptions and lost early works.” In a footnote, they detail the works that are excluded. I am familiar with only one of these, the Cinco piezas del siglo XVI of 1937, which is worth seeking out.

At the end of the documentary Shadows and Light, made when Rodrigo was 90, there is a spellbinding performance of Zarabanda lejana (Distant Sarabande) of 1926. I’m pretty sure the recording they used was the one on these discs. The tempo and sensitivity of this performance is perfect. I have another recording that seems rushed by comparison, and it ruins the mood.

Here we have 2 hours and 33 minutes of delightful piano music composed by Joaquín Rodrigo, sure to increase your appreciation for this great 20th-century composer. Of course, I have a number of favorites.

  • Zarabanda lejana (Distant Sarabande)
  • Cinco piezas infantiles (Five children’s pieces), for two pianos
  • Sonatina para dos Muñecas (Sonatina for two Puppets), for piano four hands
  • Gran Marcha de los Subsecretarios (Grand March of the Subsecretaries), for piano four hands
  • Atardecer (Dusk), for piano four hands
  • À l’ombre de Torre Bermeja (In the Shadow of the Crimson Tower)
  • Plegaria de la Infanta de Castilla (Prayer of the Princess of Castile), from Cuatro piezas para piano

If you need any more convincing that this recording is a “must have”, here are words written by Joaquín Rodrigo himself.

“Gregory Allen’s recording of my works for piano is excellent. His magnificent technique and his authentically fine interpretation satisfy me completely.”

—Joaquín Rodrigo, Madrid, 1991

Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

If you listen to much classical music, you are no doubt familiar with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in 1922. But have you heard Mussorgsky’s original version for piano, written in 1874? A fabulous recording by Russian-born American pianist Natasha Paremski was released just last year, and I highly recommend it. She also wrote the liner notes, which really adds to your understanding of the piece and her enthusiasm for it. Following Pictures is Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, by contemporary composer, Fred Hersch. I like the piece, which he wrote for Paremski. It is based on one of the beautiful melodies in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. I’m sure you will recognize it.

Modest Mussorgsky was a musical rebel and had his demons to contend with, including the alcoholism that ended his life at the young age of 42. Though his character and compositional talents have often been maligned, I think there is more to this man than the caricatures, even of his contemporaries, tell. Stripping away the orchestration provided by Ravel and others, and listening to this work in its raw pianistic form, you will find here a work of true genius, bold and viscerally beautiful.

The Extraordinary Music of Joaquín Rodrigo

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)

Joaquín Rodrigo was born in Sagunto, Valencia, Spain on November 22, 1901. At the age of three, a diphtheria epidemic ravaged his community and he was not spared. His eyes were damaged and he soon lost his eyesight. Despite his blindness, he went on to become Spain’s greatest composer of the 20th century. After immersing myself in his music for the past several weeks, this avid music listener would like to suggest that Joaquín Rodrigo was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. I believe his acclaim has not yet reached its peak, and that many of his works that to the present day have seldom been played will soon become part of the standard repertory.

Rodrigo is primarily known for his wonderful guitar concertos: Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), Fantasía para un gentilhombre (1954), Concierto Madrigal (1966), and Concierto Andaluz (1967), but have you heard his purely orchestral work A la busca del más allá (In search of the beyond)? Or his piano version of Zarabanda lejana?

There is no better introduction to the music of Joaquín Rodrigo than the four-CD set from EMI Classics, The Rodrigo Edition. One of the foremost interpreters of Rodrigo, Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz skillfully conducts the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica del Estado de México, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in these completely satisfying performances.

EMI Classics CZS 7 67435 2
EMI Classics CZS 7 67435 2

Joaquín Rodrigo died in 1999 at the age of 97. When he was 90, a loving and insightful documentary was produced, titled Shadows and Light. Please seek it out! It is well produced and inspiring. You can view this documentary on medici.tv (much of it is in English, but for the parts that aren’t you have the option to select English subtitles), or purchase the DVD through Amazon.

Mahler’s Farewell

Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) wrote in his essay Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,

“I cannot listen to the last movement of the Mahler Ninth without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity…How do the young stand it? How can they keep their sanity? If I were very young, sixteen or seventeen years old, I think I would begin, perhaps very slowly and imperceptibly, to go crazy…If I were sixteen or seventeen years old…I would know for sure that the whole world was coming unhinged. I can remember with some clarity what it was like to be sixteen…I was in no hurry…The years stretched away forever ahead, forever…It never crossed my mind to wonder about the twenty-first century; it was just there, given, somewhere in the sure distance.”

Thomas was referring to the threat of nuclear war, which is still very much with us. Now, can you imagine as bad as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, what a nuclear war would be like? We need to rid our planet of these weapons, now.

As I was listening to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the Adagio, this past Monday, I was also thinking, of course, about the frightening ravages of COVID-19, but also climate change and the precipitous decline in biological diversity caused by humans. All of this is driven by the fact that there are too many people on the planet, and the answer is not to kill (by whatever means) people who are already here, but to bring fewer children into the world so we can lower human population to a sustainable level in the coming generations. We could all have a higher standard of living without trashing the planet.

On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, PBS aired a new BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts. I was riveted by the program, presented by Sir David Attenborough, who will turn 94 next month the day before I turn 64. David Attenborough is an international treasure. Watching him so expertly present, as he always does, the urgency of this climate crisis and remembering his many outstanding documentary series such as Life on Earth and The Living Planet, I became teary eyed knowing that he will not be with us for very much longer. You wish someone like David Attenborough or Carl Sagan could live for hundreds of years. Because, when our life is over, we will cease to exist as a conscious entity, for all eternity. I am now certain of that. Realizing that this is our one and only life gives one a very different perspective on what we are doing to this world—and to each other. Humanists value the sanctity of each human life more than anyone who believes in an afterlife. Humanists fully understand the enormous responsibility each of us living in this current generation has to ensure that our civilization does not descend into a dystopian existence. There will be no salvation, just unimaginable pain, suffering, and destruction of all that is good, if we fail.

I am so inspired by young Greta Thunberg, who features prominently in the documentary. Greta and the many other young activists around the world give me hope for the future. Her words and conviction brought more tears to my eyes. I may be 63, but I’m with you 100%, Greta. Sign me up!


In 1908 and 1909, Gustav Mahler finished his last completed work, the Symphony No. 9. There was much turmoil and tragedy in Mahler’s life prior to the writing of this symphony. His beloved oldest daughter, Maria Anna Mahler, died of scarlet fever and diptheria on 5 July 1907 at the age of 4. Immediately after Maria’s death, Mahler learned that he had a defective heart. And his relationship with his wife Alma had become strained. Gustav Mahler died on 18 May 1911. He never heard his Symphony No. 9 performed. It received its premiere on 26 June 1912 in Vienna with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the Adagio, is one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard. While listening to it, one thinks of all the beauty that was and is in the world, and how terribly much we have lost.

The most expressive recording of the Adagio I have heard is by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti (Decca 473 274-2). If this movement of 24:37 does not lead you to weep, I don’t know what will.

Jean Sibelius: An Introduction

The young Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wanted to be a virtuoso violinist but it was in composition that his greatest talent lay. All his life, he was deeply connected to the natural world, and this love of Nature is expressed in much of his music.

Jean Sibelius in 1913

I know of no better introduction to the music of Jean Sibelius than the two CD set of his Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 4, and Finlandia and the Karelia Suite by Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Decca 455 402-2

The earliest composition featured on this recording is the Karelia Suite, completed in 1893; the latest is the pensive Symphony No. 4, completed in 1911. All of the music on these discs is splendid, the performances inspired, and the recordings immersive.

Ashkenazy seems to have an innate understanding of Sibelius, and his conducting and interpretations shine here throughout.

As with many (most?) of the greatest composers, Sibelius faced a number of challenges and personal demons throughout his life. Though he lived a long and productive life, he wrote almost no new music after his brilliant tone poem Tapiola in 1926, 31 years before his death. He did complete a Symphony No. 8, but threw the score into his fireplace in 1945. Sibelius once remarked, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”

To find out more about the life and music of Jean Sibelius, I’d like to direct your attention to an excellent two-part documentary film by Christopher Nupen, completed in 1984. It is available through the classical music streaming channel medici.tv (highly recommended) and Amazon.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The remarkable composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote five works for piano and orchestra. The first four were his piano concertos.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F♯ minor, Op. 1 (1891; revised 1917)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926; revised 1941)

His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos are especially beautiful, and are among the finest examples of this genre in the entire repertory.

Then, in 1934, eight years after his final piano concerto, he wrote his final work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is a set of 24 variations in a single movement lasting 23 to 25 minutes. Its point of departure is the last of the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, written between 1802 and 1817 by the great violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Here is a performance of Caprice No. 24.

Kyoko Yonemoto playing Caprice No. 24 in A minor by Niccolò Paganini

And, oh, what Rachmaninoff does with this theme by Paganini! Energetic, scintillating, lush, virtuosic—these are just a few of the words that describe this incredibly dynamic and exciting work. It is the perfect introduction to Rachmaninoff’s music, and arguably his finest work—at least in terms of what he accomplishes in a mere two dozen minutes.

There are many fine recordings of this remarkable piece. I have several. Here they are, in order of duration.

23:00 Gary Graffman (1928-), New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

23:01 Cecile Licad (1961-), Chicago Symphony, Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

23:16 Adilia Alieva (living; birth year unknown), Orchestra Sinfonica do Samremo, Walter Proost (living; birth year unknown)

23:36 Vladimir Ashkenazy (1937-), London Symphony, André Previn (1929-2019)

23:44 Stephen Hough (1961-), Dallas Symphony, Andrew Litton (1959-)

24:56 Daniil Trifonov (1991-), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (1975-)

As you can see even from this small sample, a piece of music can be played with widely varying tempos and, of course, interpretations. The Trifonov recording is the latest addition to my collection, and you’ll note that it is a full 1m12s longer than the next longest interpretation, another great recording by pianist Stephen Hough.

I was bowled over by this Trifonov recording, and it is my current favorite. There is so much to savor here, and yet I never get the sense that the tempo is too slow. Time is certainly relative when it comes to music!

Give this recording of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini a listen! Truly outstanding.

Deutsche Grammophon 479 4970 GH

Bastien and Bastienne…and Beethoven?

Musical mystery, or compositional coincidence?  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the music for his one-act opera Bastien and Bastienne in 1768, at the age of 12.  The short Overture to Bastien and Bastienne bears a remarkable resemblance to the opening theme of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, composed between 1802 and 1804.  Although the keys are different (Mozart’s overture is in G major and Beethoven’s symphony is in E♭ major), could it be that Beethoven had Mozart’s theme in mind while he composed his 3rd symphony?  It is unlikely that Bastien and Bastienne was known to Beethoven, as that music received its first public performance in 1890.  Perhaps, just a coincidence.  Great minds think alike, it appears.

Overture to Bastien and Bastienne, Statatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, RCA 74321-56698-2
Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, London 430 792-2

Scythia Sweet

One of the enjoyable aspects of recording asteroids passing in front of stars (we call them asteroid occultations) is the interesting names of some of the asteroids. This month, Bob Dunford, Steve Messner, and I had two double-chord events across the asteroid 1306 Scythia, discovered in this month of 1930 by Soviet astronomer Grigory Neujmin (1886-1946).

The name 1306 Scythia immediately brought to mind a favorite piece of music, the Scythian Suite—surely one of the most unusual and otherworldly compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, or anyone else for that matter.

A quick look at the entry for 1306 Scythia in the 5th edition of Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D. Schmadel (1942-2016) quickly confirmed my suspicion that the subject matter of both asteroid and musical composition is the same.

Named for the country of the ancient Scythians comprising parts of Europe and Asia now in the U.S.S.R. in regions north of the Black sea and east of the Aral sea.

In the wee hours of Friday, July 12, Bob Dunford in Illinois and I in Wisconsin observed only the second asteroid occultation of 1306 Scythia (and the first since 2014). The predicted path is shown below.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star Tycho 5189-597-1 (UCAC4 414-136241) on 12 July 2019 UT.

Bob, who was observing at Naperville, observed a 4.3-second dip in brightness as the asteroid covered the star between 8:23:46.203 and 8:23:50.531 UT, and I, observing at Dodgeville, observed a 1.3-second event between 8:24:01.783 and 8:24:03.054. Our light curves are shown below.

Bob Dunford’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 14-inch telescope.
David Oesper’s light curve of the 1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT, using a 12-inch telescope.

Here’s a map showing our observing locations relative to the predicted path.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations

Here’s the profile showing the chords across the asteroid.

1306 Scythia / Tycho 5189-597-1 event of 12 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Just four days later, both Bob Dunford and I had a high probability event of the same asteroid passing in front of a different star, and this time we were joined by Steve Messner. Bob and Steve both got positives! Unfortunately, I was clouded out.

Predicted shadow path of the asteroid 1306 Scythia from the star TYC 5188-573-1 on 16 July 2019 UT.
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Predicted Path and Observer Locations
1306 Scythia / Tycho 5188-573-1 event of 16 July 2019 UT – Asteroid Profile and Chords

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the Scythian Suite in 1915 when he was 24 years of age. Even at that young age, Prokofiev already showed great talent and originality.

Sergei Prokofiev, circa 1918

Here are some excerpts of the Scythian Suite performed by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. This is a 1983 recording (Vox Box CD3X 3016). The movement descriptions are based on those given in Wikipedia.

1st movement: Invocation to Veles and Ala – barbaric and colorful music describing the Scythians’ invocation of the sun.

Some of the music you’ve heard in the original “Star Trek” certainly was inspired by this.
Alien landscape music
Alien landscape music #2

2nd movement: The Alien God and the Dance of the Evil Spirits – as the Scythians make a sacrifice to Ala, daughter of Veles, the Alien God performs a violent dance surrounded by seven monsters.

Best to observe this nasty dance from a distance…
This certainly reminds me of Dmitri Shostakovich, but he was only 9 years old at the time and just beginning to compose!

3rd movement: Night – the Alien God harms Ala; the Moon Maidens descend to console her.

This beautiful movement of many moods begins peacefully, then moves to a section of descending lines that might remind you of “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, but this was being written at the exact same time as the Scythian Suite! Next the music takes an ominous turn, and then returns to a little night music, but more a travel through interstellar or intergalactic space rather than a terrestrial night.

4th movement: The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Cortège of the Sun – Lolli, the hero, comes to save Ala; the Sun God assists him in defeating the Alien God. They are victorious, and the suite ends with a musical picture of the sunrise.

Here, now, the conclusion of this remarkable work.

Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. There is nothing else like it in the orchestral repertoire!

Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is, of course, best known for The Planets, but I continue to discover other compositions by Holst which are truly remarkable and unjustifiably neglected.

I listened to an out-of-print compact disc this evening that features some Holst rarities: Hymn to Dionysus, Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda, and Two Eastern Pictures. Fortunately, there are still used copies available of this 1985 UK release, so I was able to purchase the disc: Unicorn Digital DKP(CD) 9046. These performances are by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015), and the legendary harpist Osian Ellis (1928-). What a gem of a recording this is! Seek it out!

The standout work on this disc is a (nearly) complete recording of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, written in four groups between 1908 and 1912. The Rig Veda is the oldest scripture of the Hindu religion. Not satisfied with existing English translations, Holst learned Sanskrit so that he could provide his own translation.

Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, op. 26

First Group, for chorus and orchestra (H. 96)
   I.   Battle Hymn
   II.  To the Unknown God
   III. The Funeral Hymn [not included in this recording]

Second Group, for women's chorus and orchestra (H. 98)
   I.   To Varuna (God of the Waters)
   II.  To Agni (God of Fire)
   III. Funeral Chant

Third Group, for women's chorus and harp (H. 99)
   I.   Hymn to the Dawn
   II.  Hymn to the Waters
   III. Hymn to Vena (Sun rising through the mist)
   IV.  Hymn of the Travellers

Fourth Group, for men's chorus and orchestra (H. 100)
   I.   Hymn to Agni [not included in this recording]
   II.  Hymn to Soma (the juice of a herb)
   III. Hymn to Manas (the spirit of a dying man)
   IV.  Hymn to Indra [not included in this recording]

I also very much enjoyed the final work on this recording, Two Eastern Pictures, written in 1911.

Two Eastern Pictures, for women’s voices and harp (H. 112)

I.  Spring
II. Summer

I certainly hope that this fine recording will be reissued soon, and that live performances of these works are in the offing.