Last month at the Salzburg Festival, I attended fourteen performances—concerts, recitals, operas. Four of them, I wrote about on this blog. Another six are coming in my “Salzburg Chronicle,” to be published in the October issue. I did three for National Review, here.
That makes thirteen. What about No. 14? That was a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with Andris Nelsons on the podium and Daniil Trifonov at the keyboard. Their program consisted of two works—and those are what I wish to discuss, rather than the playing and the conducting.
On the first half of the program was a piano concerto: No. 2 in G minor by Prokofiev. On the second half was a symphony: No. 7 in C by Shostakovich—the “Leningrad.”
Please know that I am a Prokofiev man, always have been. Practically worship the ground the guy walks on. But I have never liked the Piano Concerto No. 2. In fact, I’ve struggled to find merit in it. There are some good ideas in the first movement, to be sure. But mainly, the concerto has impressed me as a bombastic affair, full of notes—excess notes—and empty gestures.
It is hard to play, yes. A pianist who pulls it off has performed a feat. Prokofiev’s No. 2 is, in fact, one of the hardest concertos in the repertoire (along with Rachmaninoff’s No. 3, Bartók’s No. 2, and some others). But is there enough of a musical payoff?
Could this concerto really have been written by the composer of Prokofiev’s First and Third piano concertos? Of that immortal ballet, Romeo and Juliet, one of the greatest of all works of art? Of that other ballet, Cinderella? Of umpteen other masterpieces?
After the Vienna Phil. concert, I tweeted something strong. I said that, just possibly, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is the worst piece of music ever written by a great composer.
I was going to bring this up in a podcast I did with Yefim Bronfman, the great pianist, a week or so after the Vienna Phil. concert. As it happened, he brought it up first! Because he had recently played it. And that, of course, gave me an opening to discuss the concerto.
(For my podcast with Bronfman, go here.)
He likes the thing. Likes it a lot. So I resolved to listen to it—once more—with new ears. In the past few weeks, I have listened to it quite a lot. I still don’t love it. But do I see more merit in it? Yes. Do I see what its admirers see it in? More than before, yes. And I will keep at it.
Herein lies a lesson for everyone, I think. If you don’t like a work of art, or don’t see the point of it, and respectable others do—keep at it, at least for a while. Try to see what they see. Try to hear what they hear. Over the years, my opinions on music have evolved. I have never ceased to like music I once liked; but I have begun to like music I never liked. In other words, I have never subtracted, but I have added.
Shall we talk about the “Leningrad” Symphony? What I said of Prokofiev, I can say of Shostakovich: I practically worship the ground the guy walks on. And I admire the first movement of the “Leningrad,” for who can resist it? But thereafter—I’m afraid I find the symphony long and dull. Very long and very dull. I wish I didn’t. Listening to Andris Nelsons and the VPO, I felt I was in jail.
Evidently, Nelsons loves the “Leningrad.” He conducts it again and again. I believe that his teacher, Mariss Jansons, loves it too. We had a grocery-store slogan in Michigan: “A million Kroger shoppers can’t be wrong.” Can Nelsons and Jansons be wrong? Can Jansons alone be wrong?
I will work on the “Leningrad” . . .
P.S. What is the worst piece of music ever written by a great composer? Forget the little ditties and asides. What is the worst major piece of music ever written by a great composer? If you like, please e-mail me your nominations at email@example.com.