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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
On the Dnieper, Op. 51 (1931) (40.37)
Songs of Our Days, Op. 76 (1937) (25.45)
Victoria Smolnikova, mezzo-soprano; Igor Tarasov, baritone
Russian State Symphonic Orchestra and Capella/Valeri Polyansky
Notes in English, French, and German. Parallel translations of Russian song texts.
Rec. Grand Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, August 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10044 [66.32]

The ballet On the Dnieper was one of the first works in Prokofiev’s new simpler style. This style emerged after the failure of his Second Symphony discouraged him from further experiments in musical complexity. It also succeeded the death of Diaghilev and Prokofiev’s bitter quarrel with George Balanchine; a falling out that so completely changed the character of his working relationship with the Ballets Russes. Parisian audiences didn’t like it. Prokofiev hadn’t yet got down the difference between writing simply and writing vaporously. Even as superbly performed as it is here, the music is pretty, occasionally lovely, even charming, but in general is just forty minutes of pleasant background. Nothing here could be mistaken for the slow movement or scherzo of a symphony. The scenario is passionless Socialist utopianism about rival lovers settling their differences with reference to the greatest good for the greatest number. One Parisian critic asked if it were to be taken as a joke.

Songs of Our Days is a setting of ‘...contemporary texts published in Pravda...’ all at least obliquely in praise of Stalin and was written just after Prokofiev had moved his family to Russia and severed all ties to Paris. The text was alleged to consist of Ukrainian and Belorussian folk poetry, and was well received in Russia; following the performance Prokofiev was given permission to travel with his wife to the USA — for the last time. Of course, his sons remained in Russia, so it is not surprising that Prokofiev refused generous financial offers to remain in the US and returned home on schedule.

Fortunately the texts are sung in Russian and are hence incomprehensible to Anglophones,* although they frequently express authentic folksy sentiments and are performed here with broad feeling and sense of fun. Musically this is the Prokofiev of Peter and the Wolf and Cinderella and the music is engaging and colourful. The overall effect is that of a rousing folk opera, and is a nice antidote to the somnolent mood established by the ballet. Baritone Igor Tarasov deserves a special medal for his clear rapid-fire delivery; if G&S is done in Russia, he would be the choice for the patter songs. Mezzo Smolnikova sings the Lullaby with great lyrical affect. ‘Bayushki-bayu’ (‘sleep little one, sleep’) is left untranslated in the printed English text.

*unless you want Russian texts to help you study the language; they are very good for this use as they are clearly enunciated and conversationally phrased. The Russian texts are printed in Cyrillic.

Paul Shoemaker

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