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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV, S.: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (excerpts) (arr. for viola and piano) (M. Jones, Golani, Hampton)
One of Prokofiev’s best loved works today, Romeo and Juliet was initially declared ‘impossible to dance to’. The composer resorted to making Symphonic Suites of the work, subsequently arranged for viola and piano, with the composer’s full approval, by renowned Soviet performer and founder of the Beethoven String Quartet Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky. The adaptation loses little from Prokofiev’s timeless score through expert utilization of the viola’s full technical possibilities, a quality enhanced by the ‘sensuous and dramatic’ (The Strad) artistry of outstanding viola player Matthew Jones.
By Oleg Ledeniov
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Suite from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (arr. Vadim Borisovsky)
Widely considered one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born in the farming village of Sontsovka, Ukraine, in April 1891. The first thirteen years of his life were spent there with his father, an agricultural engineer, and mother, a well-educated woman whose musical abilities proved a crucial influence on her son’s musical development. Prokofiev’s first formal music training began at the age of seven, and two years later he accompanied his mother on her annual visit to St Petersburg, where he saw operas by Gounod and Borodin which inspired him to write his own, entitled The Giant. Young Sergey received tuition from composer and pianist Reinhold Moritsevich Gliere, and in 1904, despite the sadness of leaving his father behind in Sontsovka, he and his mother moved to St Petersburg.
In his entrance examination to the Conservatory, the fourteen-year-old presented four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and several piano pieces to the panel, and became the youngest pupil ever admitted. His teachers included Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Anatol Liadov, but Prokofiev looked beyond the musical traditions from which they had emerged and drew inspiration from such composers as Max Reger and Alexander Scriabin. Shortly after the first performance of his post-conservatory Classical Symphony in 1918 Prokofiev headed to America where his music was poorly received by critics but applauded by audiences and music producers. While in New York he met his future wife, a soprano with the stage name Lina Llubera, and following the postponement of a production of The Love for Three Oranges by Chicago Opera, he left for Paris to meet the impresario Dyagilev.
In Paris the birth of his first son in 1924 and the loss of his mother shortly afterwards distracted him from his work. Happily, Koussevitsky’s commission for a new symphony changed this, and Prokofiev’s reputation grew apace in Europe. For some years he based himself in Paris, but a successful Soviet concert tour in 1932 and generous promises from the Soviet government persuaded him to return to live in Moscow. Some of his most successful music dates from the transition period up to his return to Moscow in 1936—the Second Violin Concerto, the music for the film Lieutenant Kijé and the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Lieutenant Kijé marked the beginning of Prokofiev’s interest in writing music for film and stage. Also completed in the years following his return to Moscow, composed in just four days, was Peter and the Wolf. The Soviet leadership, however, began to impose increasingly strict guidelines on composers, demanding that their music support the ‘struggle against folk-negating modernistic directions’ and publicly ridiculing anyone who dared to err towards ‘bourgeois culture’.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 caused Prokofiev to be ‘removed’ from Moscow to the Caucasas along with other senior cultural figures. Despite the harsh conditions and separation from his family, who had to remain in Moscow, he remained prolific and composed some of his most enduring music including the Fifth Symphony and Cinderella. Following the end of the war, a second marriage and various health problems, he still found the resolve to compose, the première of his Seventh Symphony representing his last public appearance. Prokofiev died on 5 March 1953, the same day as Stalin, from a brain haemorrhage, and was posthumously awarded the Lenin Prize in 1957 for his Seventh Symphony.
“In everything I write I adhere to two main principles—clarity in expressing my ideas, and laconism, avoiding everything superfluous in their expression”, wrote Prokofiev. “In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or painter, is in duty bound to serve man, the people. He must beautify life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art might consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future.”
Although Romeo and Juliet is amongst Prokofiev’s most loved scores today, its creation was not at all easy. The Kirov Theatre commissioned a ballet work from Prokofiev in 1934, but political changes led to the cancellation of the planned staging of Romeo and Juliet. Instead the composer signed a contract for the ballet with the Bolshoy Ballet Theatre and collaborated with the stage director Sergey Radlov, now no longer associated with the Kirov Theatre, on the material, orchestrating twenty pages a day. On completion of the score in summer 1935, however, the music was declared ‘impossible to dance to’. There was even an attempt to create a happy ending for the ballet by allowing Romeo to arrive a minute earlier and find Juliet still alive, since “living people can dance, the dying cannot”, but Prokofiev eventually agreed to provide an alternative, tragic ending. The ballet remained unperformed until its 1938 première in Brno. In the intervening years Prokofiev had crafted two Symphonic Suites and a piano transcription from the material, which were well received by the public. Only after these successes did the Kirov and Bolshoy take notice: the former eventually staged the ballet in 1940, the latter in 1946, following which Prokofiev admitted reluctantly that the Bolshoy dancers were not “altogether deaf to good music”.
Moscow-born Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky (1900–72) is known to many as the founder of the Soviet Viola School. He began his studies as a violinist in the Moscow Conservatory but soon transferred to the viola, and upon graduation in 1922 formed the Beethoven Quartet with colleagues, remaining their violist until 1964. He also became Professor of Viola at the Conservatory only five years after graduating, and gave numerous recitals on both viola and viola d’amore. Composers such as Schnittke, Khachaturian, Shchedrin and Shostakovich dedicated works to him or his students; Shostakovich dedicated his Thirteenth String Quartet to Borisovsky and wrote of his “tremendous talent, great skill and big heart”. Hindemith once wrote: “In the world union of viola players, Borisovsky is the chairman!”
In addition to his extensive performing and teaching careers, Borisovsky found the time to edit and transcribe for the viola and viola d’amore more than 250 works by a huge variety of composers. With Prokofiev’s full approval, he initially transcribed a suite of eight movements for viola and piano (tracks 1–4, 6–8 and 11 on this recording) and some years later arranged a further five, two of which require a second viola. The transcriptions are remarkably successful given the complexity and intricacy of the original score; Borisovsky’s writing for the piano proves to be as adept as that for the viola.
Prokofiev attributed different musical themes to the characters and their emotions, with leitmotifs repeated and transformed within the orchestral score. In his autobiography, Prokofiev wrote of the four primary elements in his own musical style: ‘the classical, the modern, the motoric or ‘toccata’, and the lyrical’. Romeo and Juliet’s incredible lyricism, most notable in the lovers’ music, is heightened in the full orchestral version by the characteristically varied and imaginative orchestration. In reducing the excerpts to just two instruments, however, surprisingly little is lost. This is owing not only to the timeless nature of Prokofiev’s genial writing, but to the imaginative use of the viola’s full register, harmonics, bowing techniques, including playing near to the bridge (sul ponticello), playing with the wood of the bow (col legno) and ample use of pizzicato. The choice of key into which Borisovsky put each excerpt is also crucial to the facility and resonance of the viola part. A recording of Borisovsky playing the Balcony Scene confirms his mastery of the instrument and his determination to push the boundaries of his instrument’s capabilities.
On this recording the excerpts are presented in the order in which they appear in the ballet, and thanks to the addition of three excerpts transcribed by Grunes and Jones, include virtually all of the most significant themes, motifs, melodies and dramatic scenes from the ballet.
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PROKOFIEV, S.: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (excerpts)...