[This was written for one of my own Parnassus CDs.]

Sergei Prokofiev was, in his musical development, a pianist first, a composer second, and a conductor third and last. He was a rapidly-developing piano prodigy, and a composing prodigy as well, amazing and sometimes confounding his teachers while still in his teens. But he developed his conducting skills, such as they were, simply from necessity. He conducted fellow-students while still in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then conducted mostly his own works when nobody else was willing or available.

Nevertheless, however unwillingly, Prokofiev did a considerable amount of conducting throughout most of his career. He studied conducting with Nikolai Tcherepnin, the composer and conductor who, among his other accomplishments, led the orchestra for the first Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. According to Harlow Robinson’s “Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, ” Tcherepnin told Prokofiev honestly that he had little natural talent for conducting, but that [Tcherepnin] believed in his potential as a composer and that he would need to be able to conduct his own music.” Prokofiev, who felt close to Tcherepnin, decided to take his advice.

Among the works cited by Robinson (not intended as a comprehensive list) as having been conducted by Prokofiev are Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, excerpts from Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (later the entire opera), and the following works of his own: Autumn, The Buffoon (in London and Paris), Dreams, Le Pas d’Acier, Overture on Hebrew Themes, The Prodigal Son, Scythian Suite (premiere), and the Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 4, & 5.

Sviatoslav Richter played Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto under the composer’s direction in 1941. “Prokofiev’s style as a conductor,” wrote Richter, “couldn’t have been more suited to his compositions. Although the orchestra members understood little in this music, they played well anyway. Prokofiev didn’t mince words and would say, straightforwardly, `Try to do this or that….And you–try to do it this way….’ Of course he was demanding.”

We do not know the circumstances of Prokofiev’s only recording as a conductor–exactly when it was made, why the Second Suite from Romeo and Juliet was selected, why there were no others. (A recording of the First Violin Concerto sometimes attributed to Prokofiev is actually conducted by Kyril Kondrashin.) The poor quality of the orchestral sound, especially the violin tone, can probably be blamed on the quality of the instruments available to the orchestral players. Nevertheless they follow the composer’s direction well, helping him to produce a performance of considerable insight. Prokofiev’s performing conception, like his music itself, is direct and unsentimental but full of genuine feeling. It’s a treat to be able to hear it, at last, in reasonably good sound quality.

Unlike Prokofiev, Stravinsky maintained an active career as a conductor throughout most of his composing career. He conducted mostly his own works, but occasionally included others in his programs. (As a result, we have fascinating and insightful performances of Stravinsky conducting Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony and Violin Concerto, rescued from broadcast transcriptions.) While critics usually labeled him a functional rather than an inspired conductor, Stravinsky’s recordings still offer us the best available insight into his orchestral music.

Stravinsky composed Le Baiser de la Fee (“The Fairy’s Kiss”) in 1928, orchestrating and adapting various relatively little-known works of Tchaikovsky and using them as the basis for his own music. Six years later he adapted the Divertimento from the complete ballet score, and frequently conducted it in his concerts. During a visit to Mexico in 1940, Stravinsky conducted two concerts with the Mexico Symphony Orchestra, at the invitation of its founder and conductor, Carlos Chavez. The concerts included mostly Stravinsky’s own music, but he also led the Tchaikovsky Second Symphony and Cherubini’s Anacreon Overture. The recording of the Divertimento was made on August 3. Robert Craft claims it was remade the following year due to extraneous noises, while David Hamilton’s Stravinsky discography lists 1940 as the date.

This recording is one of Stravinsky’s scarcest, possibly the very scarcest of all, and has never before been reissued. The orchestra, accustomed to playing twentieth century music under Chavez’s direction, has no difficulty with Stravinsky’s idiom and plays gratifyingly well.

The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto was commissioned from Stravinsky while he was traveling in the U.S. in 1937. The wealthy owners of the Dumbarton Oaks estate outside of Washington, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, wanted the music to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938. Stravinsky wrote the music during the following Winter and Spring in France. He was paid $2500 for the commission, and, with characteristic financial savvy, also sold the Blisses the manuscript, which they donated to the Library of Congress. It was first performed at Dumbarton Oaks on the Bliss’s anniversary, May 8, 1938, conducted by Nadia Boulanger.

Almost a decade after the premiere, on April 26, 1947, Stravinsky led another performance of the piece at Dumbarton Oaks. He then made the premiere recording of the Concerto with the “Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra” on May 28, 1947, for the young Mercury company, his only recording for that label. The orchestra was apparently a pickup group, although it made at least one other recording for Mercury under the direction of Alexander Schneider. Mercury reissued the recording very early in the LP era, but it quickly went out of print and has not been available until now.

–Leslie Gerber

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