String Quartet No. 2 (2006)

String Quartet // 17 mins
[PRS foundation commission for the Elysian Quartet]

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Programme Note

In the world of pop music there is something called the “Second Album Syndrome”, the phenomenon where an artist has to consider how to create an even better album after a successful first. This often causes some sort of “composers block”. Gabriel Prokofiev also suffered from this.

This Second quartet therefore is the residue of a long process of writing, rewriting and rejecting, which became eventually fruitful when he was on paternal leave for the birth of his daughter, Lutia.

I think that the 2nd follows on from where the 1st quartet left off, and takes this approach to the next stage. My 2nd quartet has even more drive than my first, and is often more rhythmic and edgy, but also has plenty of melody.” When Gabriel explained about his first string quartet in the previous Ruysdael release there was one thing he was very decisive about: he specifically did not listen to his grandfather’s string quartets in order not to become intimidated or over-influenced. Also in the Second quartet any resemblance with Sergei seems light-years away; the musical genome of the work is once again genetically independent.

If this quartet resembles any other music it would be its immediate predecessor, the first quartet. But things have changed. Unlike the first quartet, in which motives and fragments systematically form the basic structure, Gabriel Prokofiev frequently allows his building material to flourish into promising lines. These fragments never become real melodies though, hung somewhat twisted above snips of pulsating rhythms in the accompaniment.

For anyone familiar with the first quartet, the motivic use of rhythm is recognisable, with possibly even more edge. “I wanted to explore the idea of taking inspiration from contemporary electronic dance music (such as techno, and house, hip-hop) even further than I had in the first quartet. So that I guess it feels more urban and more contemporary than my first. I really wanted it to give the feeling of what it is like to live in a fast moving, big European city.”

Throughout the piece the form consists of a stitched-together patchwork of fragments. Rhythm (which Gabriel describes as “one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century“) is still prominent, yet more as the spine of the piece than the body; it is an essential element, but no longer a regulating principle. One feels that Prokofiev is searching less for instrumental effects and perhaps unintentionally by doing so, discovers new ones.

Immediately in the opening of the first movement Prokofiev needs little more than repeated notes to create a spectacular atmosphere. What the development may lack in form is more than made up for in its content. Contrasts created by the inventive use of dynamics and rhythmic qualities of string instruments (here cast in the role of percussion instruments) provide a rich colour palette.

Prokofiev’s unexpected and virtuosic use of rests is remarkable; towards the end of the first movement silence reigns freely. In the middle of this quiet crisscrossing the music stops, like busy chirping birds suddenly conscious of danger. Jangling in the higher registers, more alert this time, is again followed by another deafening silence. The effect is astonishing, like the calm before a storm.

The mysterious opening of the second movement invokes a feeling of deep musical secrets sliding down glass strings. This is followed by a swinging unison of violin and cello, carefully spun out above the surface of a simple repeated and occasionally varied refrain, a “quasi ‘classical’ alberti bass figure” as Gabriel himself calls it. “At first I follow a more rigid techno type shape. Then in the middle section of the piece, this alberti figure is diminished and looped, alla techno, but layered and developed chromatically in a much more contemporary classical way.”

A quick escape into a park or woodland” is Gabriel’s description of the third move-
ment, which he readily admits is much more nostalgic compared to the other three. What is remarkable is the relative freedom with which the material moves. No edgy pulses, no systemised city scenes, but a natural landscape in which lines flow freely like streaming rivers. It is not a freedom without threats however, as the grim, almost symphonic instrumentation keeps the listener aware of impending danger, although in the end it never develops into more than quasi climaxes and sharp dissonances. The frequently anticipated panic or perhaps dictatorship of the rhythm is gloriously kept at bay.

The freedom of the third movement seems immediately restricted in the opening of the fourth. The earlier dominance of the nervous urban tempo returns, using the same principle as in the second movement. This dictates the energy of the largest part of the last movement: ostinato pizzicati as a breeding ground for strong outbursts above it. Here, in contrast to the second, Prokofiev plays with the collected energy, becoming quieter in the first section of the movement. The ostinatos float awhile in the highest spheres, seemingly without direction until the roles are reversed and suddenly the musical plot unfolds underneath. A cautiously beginning accelerando rings in the powerful conclusion recalling the first movement and so ending this present-day masterpiece.

Gabriel is pleased with the result. He believes that form and substance have been better elaborated upon. This explains the length of the piece in comparison to the shorter first string quartet. “It is longer probably because I had some more experience in writing for string quartet, plus I was keen to give the music more time to develop and evolve. I’m about to start composing my third quartet, and I hope to have one or two even longer movements.” Not that another paternal leave is expected soon.

Sipke Hoekstra (2009)

The first performance was given by The Elysian String Quartet, Nonclassical at Cargo, Shoreditch, London, on 24th May 2006.

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