It’s that magical time of year again. You know it, I know it, let’s all say it together: I’m reading a giant composer biography that’s going to take me five weeks to finish. If I remember correctly, people were absolutely wild for my Brahms columns. I still get, on average, 20 emails per week of people asking me to read another 600-word book about Johannes Brahms, but no!! We have to move on, together, from our glory days of the column.
The extremely long biography I’m reading right now is Harlow Robinson’s Sergei Prokofiev about, uh, Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev’s made an appearance in this column before, and I had always been interested in his time spent in the United States during his career. The biography is nice to read: not too dense, interesting, funny. Here’s an anecdote: at one point during his youth, Prokofiev got really into stilts. You read that correctly. Stilts. Like from the circus. And his parents had a freaking meltdown about it because they thought he would break his hands and no longer be able to play piano. Kooky boy!
In the early stages of these biographies, it’s often hard to nail down an influential piece of music. That said, when I was reading this morning, Robinson described the composer’s Toccata in D minor, Op. 11 as a “marvelously acerbic and biting exercise, jumping with harsh dissonances and making extravagant demands on the performer.” This was a very appealing description to me—“Prokofiev wrote an impossible and weirdly fast piece”—and I knew I had to listen immediately.
What a weird and wonderful piece of music it is! It’s almost like the soundtrack of someone tearing apart their room trying to find a pair of keys or maybe doing some kind of very bad vaudeville routine. This recording by Cyprien Katsaris in 2003 is very good and fast and cool and overwhelming. It begins with the note D repeated in the right hand while the left hand jumps around, mainly around the lower octave. It sounds fucking impossible, which is maybe why I liked it immediately. Bear in mind that Prokofiev was only about or 20 or 21 when he wrote it, and it absolutely oozes the type of young male difficulty one would imagine from, well, a young male. It’s showy and weird in a performative way. He didn’t go on to perform it for another 4 years, which gives me a bit of hope that perhaps he composed a piece even too difficult for himself to play. Regardless, I’m charmed. Keep in mind, this is a kid who loved stilts.