Gabriel Prokofiev: Selected Classical Works 2002-2013

Selected Classical Works 2002-2013 provides an excellent overview of the contemporary classical music Gabriel Prokofiev has issued on his own Nonclassical label. The release obviously won't have a great deal to offer to those who already possess the London-based composer's recordings from which the selections are drawn, but for anyone coming to his work for the first time the release is an undeniably attractive proposition, especially when its nineteen tracks amount to seventy-eight minutes of quality music.

Being the grandson of the great Sergei Prokofiev must be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the immediate brand recognition can't help but have opened professional doors for Gabriel; on the other hand, any work he produces emerges in the shadow of his elder—an unfortunate measuring stick that even the greatest of young composers would have a hard time overcoming. It hardly seems fair to assess the quality of Gabriel's compositions by putting them up against the Symphony No. 1 in D Classical, Op. 25 (1916–17) or Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Op. 100 (1944), even if the younger composer shares with his grandfather certain tendencies, a penchant for playfulness and aggressiveness among them.

All things considered, it's best to simply deal with the material on its own terms, and on that count Gabriel's holds up fine. Certainly one of the collection's most appealing points is the diversity of its content, as it pairs piano pieces and string-based works—his first two string quartets and a cello-based piece—with excerpts from his Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra and a live percussion-based selection from Import/Export. The latter two pieces in particular reflect Prokofiev's desire to minimize the distance between classical and electronic and dance music genres.

Exquisitely rendered by the Elysian Quartet, both String Quartet No.1 (2003) and String Quartet No. 2 (2006) show the ease with which Prokofiev is able to operate within the classical music tradition whilst injecting his own sensibility into it. While both quartets are very much in the tradition, many of their movements—the second's especially—are driven by a high energy more characteristic of electronic dance music than classical music per se; it's no accident that the marking for the second quartet's opening movement is “Meccanica (all techno).” Performed by GéNIA, the four pieces taken from 2009's Piano Book No.1 also show Prokofiev working within the conventions of the solo piano tradition and ranging between moods in doing so, from the alternately playful and pensive “Clock Watt” to the dreamily impressionistic “Entrance.”

The second and third movements from 2007's audacious Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra, which features DJ Yoda performing with The Heritage Orchestra, show that such seemingly irreconcilable forces can actually blend. The way Prokofiev deftly integrates DJ Yoda's turntable effects—ones long familiar to fans of turntablism—into the orchestral context is impressive, and the mashup ends up sounding less unnatural than might be expected. There are many disarming moments, including one during the third movement's lumbering plod that sees plucked strings paired with turntable scratching. In a virtuosic display, Peter Gregson executes all nine cello parts in the four-movement suite Cello Multitracks (2012), where once again mood contrasts and rhythms are plentiful and echoes of electronic dance music and traditional classical forms emerge. The album ends on a contemporary-sounding note with a performance by Powerplant (Joby Burgess) of “Engine Multiplier” from 2008's Import/Export, an arresting live percussion piece created using oil drum, looping, and live processing.

Based on the evidence at hand, Prokofiev can't be fixed to one genre or era only. It's telling that the inner sleeve photo shows the casually dressed composer surrounded by keyboards and staring intently at a large monitor, an image more suggestive of a modern-day electronic composer at work than the traditional one that depicts the formally dressed classical composer notating with pencil in hand.

October 2014