This set represents an almost complete presentation of Prokofiev's Songs and Romances (it omits the Five Kazakh Popular Songs of 1927 as they were never published: two songs from Op. 89 are lost). It is unfortunate that (in the West, at least) this particular side of Prokofiev's output has been neglected and this set, given appropriate dissemination, may well go some way to rectifying this situation. Indeed, the present issue goes hand-in-glove with Gergiev's recordings of Prokofiev operas (not to mention his performances) in widening our appreciation of this astonishingly multi-faceted composer.
The present recording was masterminded by its pianist, Yuri Serov, a graduate of the St Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory who has also studied with Hartmut Höll. A sort of Soviet Graham Johnson, his accompaniments are at all times sensitive and appropriate: his immersion in this music has fully equipped him for this task. Of the soloists Alexei Alexashkin has a particularly high profile and requires little introduction. Victoria Yevtodieva (spelt 'Evtodieva' in the booklet notes, 'Yevtodieva' elsewhere) won third prize in the 1993 Moscow Tchaikovsky International Competition. The mezzo Lyubov Sokolova and the tenor Konstantin Pluzhnikov both hail from the Kirov (Mariinsky) Opera. The baritone Andrey Slavny is a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory.
Prokofiev's songs can be grouped into three categories: the mainly lyrical bent of the songs of 1910-21 (ie Opp. 9, 18, 23, 27 35 and 36); the Soviet patriotism, children's songs and Pushkin Romances of the 1930s to the early 1940s (ie Opp. 66, 68, 73, 76, 79 and 89); and the arrangements of traditional Russian songs (mostly from the 1940s, ie Opp. 104, 106 and 121). However, the non-chronological arrangement of these three well-filled discs allows plenty of scope for contrast and comparison, and voice-ranges are appropriately varied. The recording, made in St Petersburg, is clear and allows one to focus fully on the details of these marvellous pieces.
The extended setting of Hans Christian Andersen's famous The Ugly Duckling makes for an excellent start. Not only is the subject matter universally familiar, but Prokofiev's reading of it sets out many of his characteristics. It is an affecting piece, which (unsurprisingly) includes spiky wit but also breathes a real humanity. It represents the first outpouring of Prokofiev's mature vocal writing and the text seems to inspire a special reaction from the composer (the idea of the subject matter invoking a personal reaction in Prokofiev himself is hardly too fanciful). Yevtodieva handles the extended (12'57) piece with great sensitivity and care. Serov starts as he means to go on, piano textures consistently clear and always responsive.
The leap to the Pushkin Romances of 1936 (written to mark the centenary of that poet's death) is a stark one. Andrey Slavny has an appropriately dark baritone to reflect the desolation of the first song, so that the (textual and textural) brightening of the second poem into light is particularly effective. The valedictory third song's sense of resignation and sadness is tellingly portrayed. He is equally telling in his declamation of the long Op. 23 No. 1 (11'25)
The Seven Songs of Op. 79, heard next on the first disc, hold a textual change, marked by overt patriotism first begun in the Op. 66 songs. In tandem with this, and in order to reach out to the mass population, Prokofiev simplifies his musical language. As if the pride of the Russian homeland of the first song of Op. 79 is not enough, the second song represents real Soviet propaganda. Called 'A Model Female Worker' (and we're not talking Claudia Schiffer here), a couple of translated examples from the text should suffice: 'My machines are in perfect order, my every technique is accurate ... I love my work, I teach my mates ... Thanks to Stakhanov's method, I have learned every pin and nut in my machines'. Bleak reading now, of course: as are the departures of the Red Army against the Poles in the fifth song or the setting of the uncredited passages from Pravda which constitute the seventh. The Cantata Songs of Our Days for soprano, tenor, baritone and piano is a larger-scale exposition of these ideals (the third song, for example, has words recorded at the Krasny Pakhar Collective Farm). Even the delicate and tender penultimate Lullaby is simultaneously a restrained hymn to Stalin. Yevtodieva, Pluznikov and Slavny present this cycle unapologetically, and it becomes all the more convincing a musical statement for that.
Lest I give the impression that all is gloom and doom, the more serious pieces are leavened by arrangements of traditional Russian songs of Opp. 104 and 106. Prokofiev's first two arrangements, 'White Snow' and 'Elderberry Upon the Hill' were published in Paris in 1929 and can easily be read as a manifestation of homesickness for his native land. They were then published as part of Op. 104. Taking his inspiration from North Russian village chants collected by Evgeny Gippius, by his own admission Prokofiev stated to Kabalevsky in 1945 that '… I take folk-tunes and develop them as if they are my own'. Often picking songs that are predominantly lyrical, the composer converts them into truly characteristic statements, a process of internalisation which renders them little Prokofievian gems in their own right. If the purer art-songs are sometimes seen as more rewarding pieces of music because of their more advanced harmonic and melodic language (not necessarily a point of view to which I subscribe), these traditional songs show another, equally valid, aspect of Prokofiev's thought and feeling. The singers on the present set seem to understand this well, projecting the Russianness which lies at the songs' heart while simultaneously presenting a Prokofiev which is as true as the Prokofiev of the Sarcasms.
Yevtodieva's interpretation of the Five Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 27 (1916) is especially worthy of mention. She is magical in No. 3, 'Memory of the Sun', and her projections of the desolation following in the wake of the death of a monarch in No. 5 is most touching. More, she is stunning in the Five Songs without Words, Op. 35, inflecting and shaping the wordless text with the height of sensitivity.
Competition on record is small: Carole Farley's Prokofiev recital on Chandos (CHAN8509, with Arkady Aronov as pianist) is worth searching out: it presents Opp. 9, 27, 36 and 73. There is no doubt, however, that this set represents a major addition to the Prokofiev discography and should find a place on the shelves of any musician who has an interest in the music of this composer. All three discs are more than well-filled (the shortest is 75'59) and I will be returning to my set frequently, I suspect.