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S & H Concert/Festival Review

Prokofiev Symphonies with Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, Barbican Hall, May 1st-6th, 2004 (CC)



The prospect of Prokofiev’s Symphonies conducted by Gergiev is an enticing one. And there is a certain frisson about this conductor’s concerts that adds to the general excitement - one never knows whether he will ‘deliver’.

Certainly to hear the first three of Prokofiev’s symphonies in one evening is a remarkable experience. The First Symphony (the so-called Classical, 1917) was, in Gergiev’s hands, no mere extended overture – the fast and furious tempo of the first movement ensured maximum effect for the opening gesture, enabling him to drop the temperature effectively for the more playful, skittish side of Prokofiev’s character. Grace notes over large intervals were suavely flicked – and yet Gergiev’s speed left room for some heaviness in the equation, too. More determined than smiling, the first movement merely ensured that the second and third movements, delightful both, shone. The speed of the Larghetto seemed exactly right (and what a first bassoon solo!); the Gavotte was full of wit so that the Haydnesque finale, here a helter-skelter ride, followed on logically. One could only sit in wonder at the flute’s facility in tonguing, and remark once more on how any orchestra can follow Gergiev’s juddering hands. Good though the Philharmonia's account under Dohnányi was at the RFH in early April, Gergiev seemed closer to Prokofiev.

The much larger orchestra required by the Second Symphony ensured maximum contrast. This is very angry music (the barrage of trumpets that opens the work acts as testimony to that, as does the militaristic side-drum part). The development rises ominously from the depths (cellos, double-basses, double-bassoon and tuba making a formidable combination); aggregates can be ear-shatteringly loud, and any attempt the music makes towards playfulness is immediately quashed. Written in 1924-5, Prokofiev was intent on dazzling his Paris audiences. The Symphony is in only two movements, the second of which is a theme and variations. From innocent enough beginnings (and yet even here the mobile texture is definitely mysterious), a panoply of mood-shifts ensues, including a Petrushka-like fairground evocation as well as significant returns to the savageries of the first movement. This movement is a tour-de-force for any orchestra, and the LSO on form (as it was here), under inspired leadership (again, as here) seems the match for any orchestra on the planet today. If only the Second Symphony was performed more often - it is a truly remarkable piece. Yet it is hard work to listen to, and really quiet exhausting to experience (the interval was welcome).

Koussevitsky called Prokofiev’s Third, ‘the best symphony since Tchaikovsky’s Sixth’. The work came out of the composer’s work on his opera, The Fiery Angel. Gergiev’s performance of the Third at the Festival Hall with the LPO in February 2003 impressed me greatly (see the review for a précis of its dramatic background). The LSO was, if anything, even more focussed than their South Bank rivals, possibly because this is part of a symphonic cycle, or possibly because it acted as the climax of the evening (in 2003 it acted as the opener to a concert entitled, ‘Magic’, the final work being Stravinsky’s Firebird). Here no blow was cushioned, the violent, thumping opening giving way to an arching melody. The violins played with real warmth, however. There was an underlying lyric current underlying the surface violence.

The pictorial/dramatic element of the score was much in evidence in the delicate Andante (which included some marvellous solo violin work from Gordon Nikolitch), contrasting with the seething mass of energy that is the scherzo. But it is the finale that is the most impressive movement (as Gergiev seemed at pains to point out), with its great blocks of sound and a climax like Romanticism gone wild. The bleak close came as no surprise. It would be difficult to imagine a more impressive way to begin a Prokofiev symphony cycle.

Prokofiev’s immediately post-war Sixth Symphony (1945-47, heard on Wednesday May 5) is a stark tale of suffering. Hints of bitter-sweet Prokofiev in the second movement are subsidiary to the overall picture, and are quickly quashed by their surroundings. The first movement speaks of discomfort, something Prokofiev projects through his scoring - dark, low trumpets naturally project an awkwardness coupled with a bleak outlook that, in this performance, seemed entirely apt. Pungent oboes and lamenting brass all contributed towards an atmosphere that dripped with futility. Gergiev did manage to find something magisterial in the Largo and also evoked a sort of hyper-Romanticism at the very end, all leading to a circus-music, vamp-till-ready, comic-strip finale, culminating in more High Romanticism. Forty minutes of Prokofiev at his most disturbing, even if there was a slightly under-powered feel to parts of the finale that came as a surprise.

The Seventh exists with two endings, and on May 5th Gergiev gave us Prokofiev’s first thoughts (i.e. minus the ‘happy ending’). This indeed seemed the natural conclusion to a work that presents a varied yet intensely worked argument. The opening Moderato exemplified this work’s wide emotional range perfectly, the chilliness of the beginning opening out beautifully. Gergiev highlighted the Prokofiev of Cinderella that is present (interestingly – and correctly, for the allusion is stronger here - David Nice’s booklet notes made this connection in respect of the second movement, here full of contrasts).

Of all the music in the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, it was the Andante espressivo of the Seventh that found Gergiev and the LSO on finest form, with strings in particular at their tenderest. The delicious galop that constitutes the Seventh’s finale was full of acidic woodwind and comic-strip antics, throwing into relief the ‘snow-covered’, lush melody towards the end. The very close itself seemed entirely natural and left a deep and lasting impression.

The final instalment in ‘my’ Prokofiev cycle comprised the Fourth and Fifth (May 6th). The Fourth was presented in its revised 1947 version (Op. 112: the earlier 1930 one being Op. 47). As is characteristic of Gergiev, his refusal to dawdle meant that he sat (albeit rather precariously) on the fence that lies between an admirable refusal to indulge needlessly and pure rushing (alas the latter for most of the first movement’s contrastive flute melody). But other, more positive hallmarks are also there: the seething, granitic climax, and the visceral, abrasive textures.

Like the Third Symphony, the material of the Fourth derives from a stage work, in this case the ballet, The Prodigal Son. David Nice neatly refers to the concept of ‘wine in new bottles’ when it comes to this sort of recycling of material. The flute melody of the second movement (Andante tranquillo) represents the Son’s final state of grace in the ballet - alas it was under-projected, with the accompanying strings too loud (not the first occurrence of this trait in this cycle). At least the Moderato, quasi allegretto (in the ballet, the Dance of the Siren) was debonair and the near-comedic gestures came off well.

The Fourth Symphony is not an ‘easy’ work to listen to, as the battering trumpets and the generally relentless finale attested. Once more, interpretatively, Gergiev often sat on the surface of the music, a trait that was to be writ large in the Fifth Symphony.

And so to the most famous of them all (possibly excepting the ‘Classical’ symphony). Although better than the Fourth in that Gergiev seemed generally closer to Prokofiev, the final impression left by the Fifth was still that of an incomplete realisation. A more gutsy approach was evident from the raw woodwind of the opening – at least the music had a real sting in its tail, and a darkness of intent also seemed to have descended. The comparatively tough first movement evinced a feeling of organic growth, while unashamed Romanticism reared up in the Adagio. A rugged determination formed the underlay of the finale, including some unabashedly silly (and very loud) moments. Still, however, the feeling that a series of impressive moments not adding up to a rounded musical statement was left hanging in the air. It was a pity that a niggling sense of dissatisfaction seemed to be the end result.

A mixed cycle, I think, the highlights of which were Nos. 2, 3 and 7 (with No. 6 very nearly making it).

Colin Clarke


Further listening

1: Abbado/COE on DG Panorama 469 172-2, or Ancerl with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon Gold (excellent coupling of Piano Concertos 1 & 2 with Richter and Bologhová, SU3670-2). Historically, Koussevitsky has much to offer - GEMMCD9487.

2: Polyansky on Chandos CHAN9989, c/s Sinfonia concertante (Ivashkin). There appears to be a recording by Gergiev with the USSR Large Radio/TV Orchestra (1988) on Audiophile Classics APL101.517.

3&4: Rostropovich/Orchestre National de France, (No. 4, Op. 112) Elatus 2564 60020-2.

1-4 + Hamlet: Moscow Large Radio & TV Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky Melodiya 74321 66979-2

5: Karajan/BPO DG The Originals 163 613-2, c/w Rite of Spring (Stravinsky).

6: Mravinsky on Praga.

7: Malko on EMI (1955). There is a 1957 recording (if you can find it) conducted by Samosud (who gave the première) on Melodiya, cat no D 01476 (LP only), or a 1953 recording by the same conductor with the All-Union Radio Orchestra, on (CD) Arlecchino ARL135. For modern sound and a solid recommendation, try Järvi on Chandos, CHAN8442.



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