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Composed: 1950-1952
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), celesta, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 17, 1969, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich

Prokofiev composed two violin concertos and two cello concertos – the same numbers as his compatriot Shostakovich. But Prokofiev’s two cello concertos are closely related, to the point where the second is in reality a re-working of the first. The last few years of his life brought him little joy and little success. The severity of Stalin’s clampdown in 1948 affected him profoundly, and his health was failing. He retreated from Moscow as much as possible, and he lost some of his closest friends. While the music he composed in the years 1949 to 1952, including the Seventh Symphony, lacks the sparkle and ingenuity of his earlier masterpieces and has not been much played, an exception to this pale picture is the Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra, and its success may be attributed to the fact that its chief ideas were formulated many years before in the First Concerto, Op. 58, finished in 1938.

This earlier work belongs to an altogether sunnier period of his life, when he was moving between western Europe and the Soviet Union, and preparing to settle in his homeland after many years abroad. This is the period of Romeo and Juliet, Alexander Nevsky, and Peter and the Wolf. It was the appearance around 1950 of Mstislav Rostropovich and his phenomenal artistry on the cello that inspired Prokofiev to re-work the older concerto, so a second version was produced under the misleading title Concerto No. 2, in January 1952, and performed in Moscow the following month. It was published with a new title Symphony-Concerto (or more commonly Sinfonia concertante), and played by Rostropovich all over the world. Prokofiev himself died a year later, ironically on the same day as his tormentor Stalin.

The three movements are all expansive, with a wide variety of themes and speeds, justifying the symphonic implications of the title. The solo part calls for a player of exceptional technique and musicality, sometimes to the point that Rostropovich asked the composer to provide easier alternatives for lesser players. These alternatives, needless to say, are ignored by today’s many gifted players.

While the second movement is the largest, combining the functions of a conventional first movement and scherzo, the slow movement comes first, with a broad Andante tempo and a motive of four rising notes clearly stated at the outset. This theme is also prominent in the ballet Romeo and Juliet, whose mood and lyrical tone is often echoed here. A striking later section has soft high strings descending along a steady scale while the basses tread a rising scale to meet them.

The second movement begins as a brisk scherzo, with energetic action from the soloist. The brass intrude rudely from time to time. Eventually the pace slackens and the soloist’s elegant rhapsodizing leads to a cadenza. This gets gradually faster, as cadenzas often do, and so leads naturally back to a return of the jumpy music from the beginning not for a brief coda, but for an extended review of earlier themes and more high-wire display from the cello.

The finale has the character of variations on a broad, lyrical theme presented at the start by the soloist. Its middle section is announced by the bassoon in its jauntiest mood. The main theme returns like a chorale, and then the celesta duets charmingly with the cello. At the end the cello ascends the heights, in Rostropovich's words, “as if spiraling up to the very summit of a domed roof,” stopped only by the thumps of the timpani.

When Rostropovich was playing it in Moscow one time, Shostakovich noticed that the timpanist was a one-legged war veteran, who stood with no artificial leg or crutch. After the concert Shostakovich cried, “Slavka, how that one-legged guy thumped his drum!” This was before the long-awaited first Cello Concerto that Shostakovich wrote for Rostropovich in 1959 and which concludes with seven bangs on the timpani. The Sinfonia concertante was one of the younger composer’s favorite works, to the point that his recording of it was, according to Rostropovich, complete worn down: “it only emitted a kind of hiss.”

Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.