Valery Gergiev - London Symphony
In an era of countless new issues of Beethoven symphonies, numerous new collections of Bach, and daily infusions of mass-Mozart, it is gratifying to see a new addition to the recorded legacy of Sergey Prokofiev - particularly to his symphonic output, which has never received the same attention as the works of his contemporaries, namely Shostakovich. Indeed, in reality, this is partly due to the fact that Prokofiev was really a composer for the stage; his third and fourth symphonies were crafted largely in part from his opera The Fiery Angel and the ballet The Prodigal Son, respectively.
The Prokofiev symphonies that one is likely to encounter in the concert hall today include the famous "Classical" First, the Fifth, and the Seventh. To most of us, the rest are relative unknowns. Perhaps this is why there exist only a handful of complete editions on disc, including compilations conducted by Seiji Ozawa, Neeme Jarvi, Walter Weller, and Mstislav Rostropovich. And now, at long last, we can add the globetrotting Valery Gergiev's account to the mix. His entire career is based on an instinctual command of the Russian repertoire, especially his long history with the works of Prokofiev - his first appearances as a conductor at the Kirov Opera were with Prokofiev's opera War and Peace (and yes, it's as long as the book). Thus, he is a natural choice as an interpreter for these works. Combined with the London Symphony Orchestra, this is a release that Prokofiev fans have awaited with great anticipation.
The LSO and Gergiev are a great match for each other here - good thing, since he was named the orchestra's principal conductor in May 2005. Although his loud grunts from the podium become tiresome by the time you get to the third disc, there is an indescribable energy boiling in these performances. While you might expect sounds in the typical Prokofiev character - the bombast, the fire, not to mention the dark brooding and threatening qualities, there are some surprises. The First Symphony is a great case-in-point; while you might expect this to be a heavy-handed account, Gergiev pulls an amazingly crisp lightness from the LSO violins (who perform this very difficult work with amazing virtuosity). Where it's needed, though, Gergiev can pack the punch - one only need listen to a few bars of the Second Symphony or the Fifth Symphony to hear the depth of sound he can create. Also exemplary is the icy atmosphere he creates for the C sharp minor Seventh Symphony. The set comes with both versions of the Fourth Symphony; a must for die-hard Prokofiev fans.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing (aside from the back cover of the CD box, which features a clean-shaven Gergiev) is that all the recordings featured here were recorded live. If you need a definitive set of the Prokofiev symphonies, look no further.
Symphony No. 1 in D major ("Classical"), Op. 25
Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 (1916-17) represents the composer's earliest mature effort in a genre he returned to time and again for the remainder of his career. Though the symphony received a warm reception in Russia and abroad - and remains one of the composer's most frequently programmed works - Prokofiev's attitude toward it remained ambiguous, vacillating between dismissive and defensive.
The First Symphony is especially intriguing in light of the view of Prokofiev as a leading figure of the Russian avant-garde in the early decades of the twentieth century. The work's anachronistic "Classical" moniker seems particularly apt in respect to a number of its features. The symphony is in a familiar four-movement form, the two fast outer movements (Allegro and Vivace, respectively) bracketing a slow movement (Larghetto) and one inspired by a stylized dance (Gavotto); its textures are economical, its scoring appropriate to an orchestra of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century; and it is of a decidely lighthearted, even humorous character, much in the spirit of the symphonies of Haydn. Indeed, it should be noted that the "Classical" subtitle was Prokofiev's own; scholar R.D. Darell has suggested that the composer may have chosen it partly to describe the work's character, partly because he hoped that the work would one day become a classic, and partly out of pure mischief directed at critics. (In regard to the last, Prokofiev wrote that he meant to "tease the geese.")
Though the symphony is at times sharply dissonant, it maintains a steadfastly tonal basis. Certainly, the "Classical" model is stretched in the work's harmonic language, which is marked by Prokofiev's characteristic ambiguous cadences and sudden shifts between tonal centers. Still, the work retains many of the trappings of Viennese Classicism, from the sonata-allegro form of the first movement, to the Mozartean gavotte and trio of the third, to the exuberant, witty finale. Despite the suggestion of its title, the "Classical" Symphony is not really neo-Classical along the lines of contemporaneous works by Stravinsky, but rather a work of elegant simplicity that evokes the spirit of high Viennese Classicism filtered through the more adventurous sensibilities of Prokofiev's own musical language.
- Alexander Carpenter (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40
When Prokofiev was living in France in the 1920s he came under criticism for failing to write truly innovative or daring music; in the thrall of the fashionable Les Six, some charged that he was relying on older works to prop up his reputation. This unforgiving attitude toward the composer emerged when Honneger's Pacific 231, a work depicting the sounds and mechanistic rhythms of a locomotive - fashioned in the so-called style m?canique - had just scored a colossal triumph. Therefore, Prokofiev decided he would give Parisian audiences what they wanted - or what he thought they wanted: a symphony constructed of "iron and steel." In the process he turned out one of his most dissonant and difficult major compositions, but also, despite its general neglect, one of his most rewarding.
Structurally, the Symphony No. 2 is fashioned after Beethoven's last piano sonata: the first movement is an austere Allegro, and the second a lengthy theme-and-variations scheme of considerable complexity and subtlety. While both were innovative works for their respective composers, there is no thematic or other musical similarity between them.
Prokofiev's first movement main theme here is angular and long-breathed, racing along and seeming to aspire to grand expression one moment, then appearing to crush everything in its downward path the next. A chorale is then introduced, but its underpinnings and orchestration are as mechanistic and brutal as anything else in the symphony. A development section ensues, bringing on more sonic mayhem, with blaring brass and surging strings, yet producing music of startling innovation, not least because of Prokofiev's brilliant orchestration. The recapitulation and coda present the main material with some important changes, but the brazen tenor of the music remains. The whole movement rages on and on, with only one brief moment of rest in the middle. Surely, this is one of the most brazen, muscular and rhythmic symphonic movements ever written.
The second movement opens with a lovely, and by contrast, soothing melody on oboe that, like its counterpart in the first movement, is long-breathed, but with no hint of agitation. Six variations follow, each imaginatively conceived and ingeniously orchestrated, some recalling the dissonant nature of the opening movement. The last of these (Allegro moderato) allows for the return of a sinister motif from the first movement, and then builds to a crushing climax, where march-like chords slash and stomp angrily to finally bring on the peaceful return of the opening theme.
The Symphony No. 2's premiere in Paris on June 6, 1925, in a performance led by Serge Koussevitsky was a failure, and Prokofiev later remarked, probably with tongue in cheek, that "neither I nor the audience understood anything in it." He planned to revise it, even assigning the opus number 136 to the projected endeavor, but died before he got around to it. After the early version of the Fourth Symphony, the Second has been the most neglected of Prokofiev's symphonies, but in the latter decade or so of the twentieth century it began receiving some attention in both the concert hall and recording studio.
- Robert Cummings (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44
This symphony sometimes carries the nickname, "The Fiery Angel," after Prokofiev's opera of that title. The composer had composed that opera under contract to the St?dtische Oper in Berlin and was to have it finished for that company's 1927 - 1928 season. But Prokofiev missed the deadline and, despite further negotiations with other opera companies, failed to attain a performance for the work. Because he had worked on it sporadically for nearly eight years, he was reluctant to let it languish unperformed, especially since he believed it contained some of his finest music. After hearing a Koussevitsky-led concert performance of the opera's second act in Paris, Prokofiev decided that the music might work well as a symphony, and thus embarked on fashioning his Third Symphony in 1928 from the then-unperformed opera, The Fiery Angel.
Like the opera, the Symphony has an otherworldly character about it, with much darkness and ethereality permeating its sound world. While each of the four movements relates to more than one aspect of the opera's twisted story, each is generally dominated by the music of a single character or scene or plot element. For example, the first movement (Moderato) deals mainly with the opera's disturbed main character, Renata, and her obsession with the fiery angel, who appears to her in visions. The music here is violent and dramatic, but mixed with passionately post-Romantic themes, the resulting contrasts providing color and an emotional roller-coaster ride that in the end yields some of Prokofiev's finest music from his middle period.
The second movement (Andante) deals with the solace and serenity of the convent that Renata enters in the opera's last act. While the music is beautiful and eerie in its tranquility, Prokofiev always manages to suggest evil lurking around the corner. This movement, like the two that follow, is short, and its limited moods and grayish colors make it probably the least effective panel in the work.
The third and fourth movements contain music which in the opera deals with the story's darker elements: those of devil possession and witchcraft. The third (Allegro agitato) is said to be inspired by the finale of the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2, and undeniably the moods of the two works have much in common. Here, the scurrying strings play a theme that doesn't sound like a normal theme in its slithery and gossamer manner and in its soft dissonance and bizarre effects, which are divided into 13 parts! The finale (Andante mosso - Allegro agitato), without doubt, contains the most violent and monstrous-sounding music in the symphony. This is a tour-de-force of horror music, with a brief middle section that recalls a tortured Romantic theme from the first movement.
Until the last decade or so of the twentieth century, the Third Symphony was largely ignored. It is now approaching the fringes of the standard repertory and is generally regarded as one of Prokofiev's strongest compositions from the period. The work was premiered by conductor Pierre Monteux in Paris on May 17, 1929.
- Robert Cummings (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 47 (first version)
This is the earlier of the two versions of Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony; the revised Fourth, which is listed as Op. 112 (or Op. 47/112), came in 1947, immediately after the controversial and profound Sixth. Musicologists have tended to favor the first version of the Fourth Symphony, viewing the later reworking as inflated and out of spirit with the somewhat gallic character of the original conception.
While the earlier Fourth is more compact, it contains a wealth of ideas in each of its four movements, much like the equally short Fifth Piano Concerto, from 1932. The many themes in the Fourth are only briefly developed - or not developed at all - and transitional material often sounds abrupt or missing altogether.
The somewhat patchwork character of the work might be explained by the circumstances of its composition. Prokofiev wrote it on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to commemorate its 50th anniversary in the 1930-31 season. Two years earlier he had missed the deadline to complete his opera The Fiery Angel, for which he had a contract with the St?dtische Oper in Berlin. That crucial failing cost him ever seeing that opera staged in his lifetime. With another important commission to meet, he decided to draw on music from his then-recent and successful ballet, The Prodigal Son, and apparently put it together rather quickly. (The Third Symphony was also derivative, drawing its material from The Fiery Angel.)
The Fourth Symphony's first movement, marked Andante assai - Allegro eroico, contains a fair amount of newly composed material, which comes in the introductory music and in the lovely alternate theme, played by reeds. The energetic main theme is taken from the ballet and therein relates to the prodigal son's deceitful friends who eventually swindle him.
The second movement (Andante tranquillo) is largely built on the lovely theme that appears at the end of the ballet, which represents the return of the prodigal son. It is one of those serene, long-breathed melodies that made Prokofiev famous - particularly in his later ballets, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The third movement Scherzo, marked Moderato, quasi allegretto, contains music that relates to the Beautiful Maiden in the ballet. The mood is light and playful, but for all its grace and sunshine there are more than a few hints of sarcasm and irony.
The opening of the finale (Allegro risoluto) is dominated by two themes of agitated character; they correspond to the prodigal son's impatience to leave home, and his meeting of new friends. The middle section features a lyrical theme, the emotional thrust of which veers from a quiet restlessness to an incandescent yearning.
The Fourth Symphony was premiered on November 14, 1930, with Serge Koussevitsky leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was not a success. The early version of the Fourth Symphony has been the least-recorded and -played of Prokofiev's symphonies; the revised version has fared somewhat better in the concert halls and on recordings. A typical performance of the work lasts from 23 to 28 minutes.
- Robert Cummings (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 112 (second version)
Sergey Prokofiev undertook more than an ordinary revision when, in 1947, he decided to put his Symphony No. 4 in C major of 1929 - 1930 into new and better shape: what we have here is very close to a wholesale recomposition. The two versions in fact have completely different opus numbers (46 for the 1929 - 1930 version, 112 for the 1947 version). The Symphony No. 4, which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for performance during its 50th anniversary season (1930), grew from material rejected from other work. The original version is a charming, beautifully unpretentious work, and yet the fact that Prokofiev chose to reshape it shows that, to his mind at least, there was always something wrong with it (and also that it was a special work to him - there were other instances in which he grew dissatisfied with earlier pieces but made no effort to redraft them). To line the two versions up side-by-side is to provide oneself with a unique study of the changes not only to Prokofiev's musical decision-making between 1929 and 1947 but also of his attitudes and even his character. The opportunity is not to be missed by fans of the composer.
The four movements retain their original relationships to one another in the 1947 symphony, and, for the most part, their tempo indications as well. But the work is now a much longer one. The most sweeping changes are made in the opening Andante-Allegro energico movement (originally Andante assai-Allegro energico), which has actually doubled in length and is more densely scored. By comparison, the inner movements are little touched. The opening of the new version of the Allegro risoluto finale is particularly fascinating: what was a boisterous passage in string octaves is now a plodding, marchlike passage whose absolutely secco gestures (pizzicato now) are underlined by sharp strokes from the timpani and piano. And the symphony's conclusion is now massive rather than snappy - a true epic peroration in what has surprisingly (given the poise and modesty of the original version) turned out to be quite an epic symphony.
- Blair Johnston (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100
Prokofiev composed this music in 1944, and conducted its premiere in Moscow on January 13, 1945. Everyone everywhere assumed that it symbolized "world-war agony and triumph" - in other words, his counterpart of Dmitry Shostakovich's 1941 "Leningrad" Symphony. It was the composer's Sixth Symphony of 1945-1947, not his Fifth, that recollected the horrors of World War II. Those who insisted the Fifth Symphony was a mirror of wartime agonies didn't know that the scherzo movement was borrowed from Cinderella. Nor did Prokofiev help matters by issuing one of those "position papers" expected by Soviet officialdom: "I conceived [the Fifth] as a symphony of the greatness of the human spirit."
After the failure of his Fourth Symphony (a 1929 reworking of material from his then-recent ballet, The Prodigal Son), Prokofiev turned his back on the form. When finally he did return, his implicit model was Shostakovich's Fifth of 1937 - four movements in concerto-grosso sequence: slow, fast, slow, fast. Otherwise, though, the music is pure Prokofiev both in substance and in style.
The inaugural Andante is a sonata-form movement that begins in 3/4 time with a fluid main theme played in octave unison by flutes and bassoon, with a tailpiece in triplets that later assumes a separate identity. A lot of working-over leads to a new tune in 4/4, introduced by flute and oboe. A jittery figure in the high and low strings acquires thematic status in the development that follows directly. Brass announce the reprise by playing the opening theme very dramatically. Rhetoric accumulates, culminating in a - why not? - "greatness of the human spirit" coda.
The Allegro marcato scherzo (in all but name) has a D minor, Danse macabre-ish song section, followed by a slightly faster, D major trio in waltz-time, borrowed from Cinderella without blinking (or acknowledgment).
The official slow movement is a passionately lyrical, ABA Adagio in F major that begins with a reminder of Aleksandr Nyevsky (1939), but continues in the mode of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. He changes keys frequently to intensify expression until the climax recalls Nyevsky's battle music. A slow introduction (lightly scored, based on music from the first movement) sets up this Allegro giocoso finale in B flat major. The strings begin a rhythm in bar 23 that prepares for merriment with a sweet-sour sauce. The clarinet plays a syncopated main theme recalling the high-spirits in Romeo and Juliet, prior to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt; this returns throughout a rondo-like movement. Prokofiev's finale amounts to a retrospective of his stylistic direction following Symphony No. 4 - including a return to the U.S.S.R. in 1933 - and ends with a tour-de-force coda.
The first performance was a triumph, the climax of Prokofiev's Soviet years, followed shortly after by a physical tragedy from which he never fully recovered. Dizzied by undiagnosed hypertension, he fell downstairs (where remains moot), causing a massive concussion.
- Roger Dettmer (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111
In 1945, Prokofiev had an accident, a fall caused by a heart attack, resulting in a brain concussion. He later suffered a stroke and would be plagued with ill health for the remaining eight years of his life. Prokofiev was no longer able to conduct, and composing became increasingly difficult. He did, however, manage to continue working until his death, and began working on the Symphony No. 6 not long after the accident. The work was actually sketched out in the summer of 1945, but other projects demanded the composer's time, and the symphony was not orchestrated until two years later. The work shares an opus number with Beethoven's last piano sonata, and Prokofiev, profoundly influenced by Beethoven and specifically by the Op. 111 sonata, is said to have considered dedicating this symphony to Beethoven. The Symphony No. 6, though, owes more to Prokofiev's earlier symphonies than to Beethoven; it is especially close to the composer's own Fifth Symphony. The two works are almost identical in instrumentation, and are similar in texture and character.
The Symphony No. 6 is a work in three movements, instead of the usual four. The form suggests the pre-Classical sinfonia, a work with two fast outer movements and a slow middle one. The symphony begins with an Allegro moderato movement in sonata-allegro form. For an opening movement however, it is a little grim, with nostalgic themes and a recurring funeral procession. Nonetheless, the lyricism that one associates with some of Prokofiev's music is still present. The second movement is a Largo, and the mood of the opening movement is maintained through dark timbres, solemn thematic material, and subdued dynamics. In the third movement, a quick Vivace, the work brightens considerably as Prokofiev uses dance rhythms and a march to invigorate the final themes. Themes from the opening movement return recontextualized in a coda as the work draws to its conclusion. The composer himself commented on the austerity of the first movement and on the similarities between the third movement of this work and the style of the Symphony No. 5.
In 1948, the Central Commission of the Communist Party condemned of most of the leading Soviet composers, accusing them of decadence. Prokofiev, however, was lucky: due to his ill health and to his lack of involvement in any official organizations, he suffered less than his colleagues. Though the Symphony No. 6 was not among those singled out for condemnation in 1948, he was hardly in favor with the Party. Ten years later, however, Prokofiev was "posthumously vindicated," and his favorable evaluation restored.
- Alexander Carpenter (www.allmusic.com)
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131
Prokofiev had a serious heart attack in 1945 and suffered a fall at the same time; his health declined slowly for eight years. He was too weak to put up any objection to the 1948 Party edicts about how music should serve the Soviet State. This restrained and gentle 1952 symphony was composed in this situation, a year before his death. Many find its simplicity and lyricism deeply affecting. Others consider it a pale echo of Prokofiev's earlier muscular style.
The symphony is in the standard four movements, with a restrained first movement possessing a stately tempo and a lyrical opening theme of unusual melancholy and sense of resignation. The key of C sharp minor, which does not resound very brilliantly or richly from any standard orchestral instrument, seems to enforce the sense of life dimming. The scherzo second movement is much livelier, recasting Prokofiev's earlier, often grotesque, sense of humor into childish jokes. The third movement is also rather funny in effect, although it is a strained humor. The finale is more energetic, with lively woodwinds and tomfoolery, then a lyrical major transformation, considerably more optimistic in tone, of the symphony's opening theme. Whether the ending is a quicksilvery sparkling conclusion or a less brilliant winding down depends on which edition of the work is chosen by the conductor.
- Joseph Stevenson (www.allmusic.com)