This Quintet dates from Prokofiev's time in Paris in 1924, when he
was still uncompromisingly modernist in his style. The contrast to his later
Soviet works could not be greater; we could almost be listening to two
different composers. 1924 was a dramatic year for him personally, with the
birth of his first son and the death of his mother. It was also the year of his
most ambitious and complex symphony, the Second. He was having mixed success in
Paris with his works; it was more difficult to
shock sophisticated Paris than either pre-war Russia or post-war USA. This meant he was still
obliged to make his living from his prowess as a concert pianist.
The Quintet is a version of his ballet about
circus life, Trapèze, which was
premiered the following year in Berlin.
The work varies from delicious tone painting of an almost lyrical nature, to
steely dissonances and choreographically challenging rhythmical complexities.
The instrumentation is unusual enough to be an attraction in itself. There is a
wide range of moods from gentle to sardonic with, not surprisingly, a strong
flavour of the burlesque. The six movements explore a fascinating variety of
sound worlds and even the double bass has a share of the limelight, though
inevitably the two wind instruments steal the show.
Later in life when he was back in Soviet
Russia, Prokofiev felt obliged to apologise for this work's formalist
tendencies by blaming the decadent Parisian atmosphere, where complex patterns and dissonances were the accepted thing and
fostered my predilection for complex thinking.