Yulia Chaplina is a Russian concert pianist based in London and winner of 8 major international competitions, including the Junior Tchaikovsky International Music Competition. Yulia performs regularly both in recital and with orchestras in many of the world’s finest venues, including the Wigmore Hall in London, Berlin’s Philharmonie, the Grand Halls of the Moscow Conservatoire and the St. Petersburg Philharmonia.

Specially for RA+C ahead of her curated London Prokofiev Weekend on 2 – 3 Feb at the Southbank Centre and Pushkin House Yulia gives an insight into understanding the music of the great Russian composer.

Yulia Chaplina

Prokofiev’s music can be a little overwhelming to listen to, especially on first hearing and especially if the performer over-emphasises the more rhythmical and percussive qualities in his music. Indeed, it is challenging to play some of Prokofiev’s music in a way that enables the audience to fully understand it. To maximise a concertgoer’s enjoyment from his music, it helps to be somewhat prepared. In this small write-up, I have suggested a few ideas of what you might listen for in his music that will make all of his music as accessible as possible, especially for those who are less acquainted with his compositional style.

Broadly speaking, I think there are three distinct characters to Prokofiev’s music – in some cases, a single composition embraces all three, in others, just one character is present throughout.

The first character is really a whole cast of characters, like personalities in a fairy-tale. Some are caricatures, others heroes. They quarrel amongst each and sometimes fall in love. Listening to this character in his music – for example, the March from Opera The Love for Three Oranges or the Dancing lesson scene where the Cinderella’s sisters are learning how to dance from the Cinderella Ballet – conjures up images of Russian Babushkassinging lullabies, Baba Yagadancing, evil Kaschei turning people into statues or Ivanushka looking for his beloved Vasilia Prekrasnya.

The second character is that of the man who famously asked his acquaintances to meet him at ‘7.07pm’ (or other similarly exact timings) and was as precise in his arrival as in his invitation! It is the Prokofiev of sophisticated rhymical ideas, with mesmerizing architecture and a powerful sense of time. Not for nothing was Prokofiev an accomplished chess player, once defeating the future world champion chess player José Raúl Capablanca.

This character is particularly powerful in the works he composed during World War II. These are extraordinary works. Scary and very gloomy, audibly depicting different scenes of the horrors of that time – the violence, the misery, the starving Leningraders, the machinery of War and, of course, the mood of the people. These extraordinary works – Violin Sonata No. 1from or the Finale from Piano Sonata No. 7 – must have been written in a special state of mind.

Yulia Chaplina

The final character is the gorgeous lyric Prokofiev, whose melodies seem to last forever – the 1st movement of the Violin Sonata No. 2 or the gorgeous Valse from the Cinderella Ballet, for instance. Although his melodic style is very different to Tchaikovsky, you can trace a very clear link to his heritage in the Russian school, and there are many similarities with the music of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky–Korsakov.

For me as a performer, the right way to think about Prokofiev is not to look for a single way to understand his personality, but rather to find these many facets of his complex character throughout hugely varied compositional output. His music is only more versatile as a result and a source of endless beauty and fascination for performers and listeners alike.

You can hear all of the mentioned works and many more at the London Prokofiev Weekend during 2  – 3 February.

The idea of a curated all-Prokofiev Weekend in London came from my close relationship with the Prokofiev family, who currently reside in London. It all started in 2016 when I organised a concert of Prokofiev’s music at the Russian Cultural Centre to mark the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Gabriel Prokofiev, the composer’s grandson and himself a very popular contemporary composer, came to the concert. Meeting Gabriel, and getting to know him as a friend over the months that followed put Prokofiev’s music into a very different perspective – it gave me a personal connection with the composer on some level and, helped by reading a lot about the composer’s life, I felt I understood his music on a completely different level. I hope what I have written above might inspire you to listen to more of Prokofiev’s beautiful music.

Prokofiev London Weekend 2 – 3 February

2 Feb Prokofiev Soviet Masterpieces

3 February Prokofiev Immersion: Exploring Prokofiev