BMW Classics 2014 & 2015: Prokofiev & Shostakovich

For BMW Classics 2014 and 2015 the Orchestra returned to the music of Russian composers, this time Prokofiev (2014) and Shostakovich (2015). We of course shared the stage again with young musicians from LSO On Track and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and we were delighted to welcome an extra special guest in 2015: Nicola Benedetti. Take a look at the programmes below.


BMW Classics 2014

Whether you're more familiar with it as the Dance of the Knights or the theme song to The Apprentice, Prokofiev really packs a punch with his musical take on Romeo and Juliet. What could have been more fitting as the soundtrack to our BMW Classics 2014 teaser trailer?

 

Symphony No 1 (‘Classical’) Op 25 (1917)

Prokofiev's Symphony No 1 bursts into life like a bottle of bubbly, fizzing with fun and frivolity, and is a firm favourite in the repertoire. It’s a cheeky little number written by the once enfant terrible of Russian music, but written in affection for the classical style of Haydn. In fact, when this symphony premiered it surprised Prokofiev’s conservatoire tutors as he had been seen as the ‘bad boy’ of music. They weren’t overkeen on his early dissonant ‘modern’ works, but here was something they saw as palatable.

 

Violin Concerto No 2 Op 63 (1935)

In 1935 Prokofiev was still living as an emigré in Paris avoiding the stark Soviet regime, although it would not be long before his return. The Second Violin Concerto would be his last non-Soviet commission. Once he was back in the USSR he had to toe the Stalinist line and rein in his natural modernist style for a more traditional route.

Prokofiev’s somewhat nomadic existence also had an impact on his music: the Concerto has a truly cosmopolitan background. As Prokofiev explained …

‘[It] was written in the most diverse countries: … the first movement was written in Paris, the [...] second movement – in Voronezh [Russia], the instrumentation was completed in Baku [Azerbaijan], and the premiere … in Madrid.’

 

Lieutenant Kijé (1934, arr Gareth Glyn 2014)

Prokofiev wrote a handful of film scores. Filmed just a year before Hollywood made The Wizard of OzLieutenant Kijé is surprising in its somewhat naïve production values. Lieutenant Kijé was produced in 1934 and is based on the novel of the same name by Yury Tynyanov. Prokofiev arranged the music into a suite of five movements, which has some of his most famous tunes – including ‘Troïka’. 

For this performance, the LSO was joined by young players and conservatoire students of different levels of proficiency for a specially arranged version by Gareth Glyn. Gareth cleverly redistributed the melodies to instruments different to Prokofiev’s original, which meant that everyone got a moment to shine, whatever their playing standard.

 

Romeo and Juliet (1935)

Even the most romantic amongst us might baulk at the idea of giving Romeo and Juliet a happy ending, but that is exactly what Prokofiev did in the original version of his ballet music, with the two families putting an end to their feuding. There was solid reasoning behind the seemingly hair-brained idea as he was trying to appease Soviet sensibilities and, on a more practical note, as he put it, ‘only the living can dance’. 

The changes to the plot were just one dent in the ballet’s chequered history. In 1935 Prokofiev was still living in Paris but Stalin was keen to have one of the Soviet’s celebrities return to the Motherland, so the authorities tempted Prokofiev with a commission for Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi Ballet. He took the bait, accepted the commission, uprooted his family and returned to Moscow, and started work on it immediately.

 

On stage in 2014

Valery Gergiev conductor
Roman Simovic violin
Paul Rissmann presenter
LSO On Track young musicians
Guildhall School musicians

Programme notes by Sarah Breeden


BMW Classics 2015

Festive Overture Op 96 (1954)

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was written in happier times. Stalin had died in 1953 and the shackles of writing for the communists were beginning to rust away. It was composed to open a concert celebrating the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917.

The story goes that the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in Moscow had nothing suitable as an opener to such an auspicious event – there were still worries about upsetting authorities – so the conductor had a quiet word in Shostakovich’s ear. He set to work straight away, and completed it in a very short time with couriers taking each sheet at a time as soon as he’d finished scribbling.

 

Violin Concerto No 1 Op 77 (1947–48)

Nicola Benedetti violin

The Violin Concerto was written in what were, perhaps, Shostakovich’s darkest days. It was composed during 1947–48, when censorship was at its height and the Union of Soviet Composers insisted on the promotion of traditional Russian music. Inevitably, Shostakovich had fallen foul of the authorities (again). He turned to composing for films to make a living (as did Sergei Prokofiev, the subject of last year’s BMW LSO Open Air Classics concert), and hid his ‘serious’ compositions, which didn’t see the light of day until after Stalin’s death in 1953. The Violin Concerto is one such work and did not receive its premiere until 1955.

Both of Shostakovich’s Violin Concertos were written for the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh. When rehearsing the First Violin Concerto Oistrakh demanded that Shostakovich give him a few bars break during the huge cadenza ‘so I can at least wipe the sweat from my neck!’.

 

Jazz Suites (1934/38, arr Gareth Glyn 2015)

If you like your jazz then the umbrella title of these three jolly numbers may surprise you. They are more akin to ‘light’ music and the March has a rousing military style. Shostakovich’s tongue is very much in his cheek with the Polka: listen out for the sultry theme played on the saxophone thrown in for good measure. The Waltz is possibly the most famous of the three: it’s one of those tunes you recognise but don’t know why. A firm favourite for wind bands, it has been used in films including Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

This version was arranged by Gareth Glyn especially for young players and conservatoire students of different levels of experience from LSO On Track and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Learn more from our LSO Players and On Track participants in this short video.

Symphony No 1 in F minor Op 10 (1924–25)

2015's concert ended at the beginning, so to speak. The first of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies was written when he was a student at the tender age of 19 as a graduation piece. Shostakovich was something of a child prodigy, having entered Petrograd’s Conservatory to study piano when he was just 13. However, not many graduation pieces have the same pedigree: its premiere was a huge success and the work was performed in the following two years by two great international orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

This was the launch-pad of Shostakovich’s chequered career. The Soviets were delighted. Here was their first fully-fledged international star, trained completely under the new state. This was to be both a burden and his saving grace.

 

On stage in 2015

Valery Gergiev conductor
Nicola Benedetti violin
Paul Rissmann presenter
LSO On Track young musicians
Guildhall School musicians

Programme notes by Sarah Breeden


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On Sunday 7 June at 3pm BST, join us on YouTube as we broadcast last year's BMW Classics concert recorded in June 2019 at Trafalgar Square. Head to lso.co.uk/alwaysplaying for more details.

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