The Elysian Quartet, Gabriel Prokofiev: Selected Classical Works 2003-2012

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 08.05.14 in Reviews

Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical label has become home to some of Britain’s edgiest artists, working at the blurry intersection of the classical avant-garde and electronic music. He is a composer, producer, remixer and, almost incidentally, the grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf). He also appears to be a fan of misdirection: The title “Selected Classical Works,” accompanied by a roster that includes a string quartet, a pianist and an orchestra, might set up certain expectations, which are then subverted by the presence of a DJ and his turntables, and a cellist who specializes in laptop layering technology. As for the music itself, the piano piece called “Clock Watt,” written for and played by labelmate GeNIA, begins with a relentless, ticking rhythm — only to give way to a nocturnal soundscape reminiscent of early 20th-century Russian composers like Scriabin and, yes, grandpa Sergei.

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If classical listeners will be challenged by the idea of a cellist playing eight lines on tape before performing the ninth part live, or by a concerto whose soloist is a DJ, then EDM listeners will be challenged by hearing the rhythms and production tropes of grime and house and rave music chopped up and distributed among a string quartet, as happens in the String Quartet #2, or nine multitracked cellos, as on “Jerk Driver” and “Tuff Strum.” But at his best, Gabriel Prokofiev finds a musical ground that is neither classical nor “nonclassical.” Those best moments include the second and third movements of the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (the only two movements included here), featuring DJ Yoda. In the third movement especially, “Largo Pesante,” the turntables are the driving force behind the rhythms, and there are startling moments where you suddenly realize that the turntable, which seemed to have dropped out, is actually playing along with the orchestra.

Also worth checking out are the pieces by cellist Peter Gregson, whose own music is often built on the Steve Reich-like layering of one cello atop another. He and Prokofiev have done a whole suite of works together, and “Outta Pulsor” and the aforementioned “Tuff Strum” are particularly potent. Among the piano works, “Rockaby” stands out for its mercurial shifts from rocking rhythms to virtuosic runs up the keyboard that may remind some classical fans of Ravel’s “Scarbo.”

This is an album that seems to gather strength as it goes along, culminating in the finale, “Engine Multiplier,” from the suite Import/Export. Played by another Nonclassical artist, percussionist Joby Burgess, who records as Powerplant, it is literally “industrial” music, built around the sounds of a large metal barrel. Here is a piece where both classical and nonclassical fans alike can share a shake of the head and a muttered “wow, what is that?”