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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
Zdravitsa, Op 85 (1939)
Autumnal, Op 8 (1934)
Hamlet, Op 77 (1938)
Flourish Mighty Land, Op 114 (1947)
Egyptian Nights, Op 61 (1938)
Russian State Symphonic Orchestra and Capella/Valeri Polyansky
Notes in English, French, and German
Recorded Grand Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, August 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10056 [73.18]

The first note on the CD, the first note of Zdravitsa, hooks you; it’s utterly gorgeous. Both orchestra and chourus performances throughout are top drawer, and the sound is fully up to Chandos’s extremely high standards even though this recording was made in Russia. Praise be that the text of Zdravitsa is sung in Russian, for it is awful fawning pseudo-patriotic Stalin worship. But rather than attack Prokofiev for writing music to such texts, we should consider music written by Bach, Beethoven, et al., under similar circumstances and reflect that some things do not change much. And so long as the music is so beautiful, why worry if we don’t like its politics? Reflect that Stalin is dead, the music is alive, and Prokofiev’s genius lives forever.

Flourish Might Land is similar in character, briefer and not quite so high in quality, but still very much worth hearing.

Autumnal is delightful, a short atmospheric tone poem he began at the conservatory and worked on for 24 years. It might be compared to Stravinsky’s Fireworks, also a brief, early, colourful teaching piece that did not reflect the mature style of the composer; or to Anton Webern’s affectionate farewell to Straussian romanticism, Im Somerwind.

Egyptian Nights is the title of an unfinished monologue by Pushkin; by amalgamating some of Shaw and Shakespeare, Tairov put together a play and Prokofiev provided incidental music for the production in 1938. The seven numbers making up Op. 61 have exotic sounding titles, but the music is not Prokofiev’s best, not comparing favourably with the character pieces from Romeo and Juliet. ‘A Night in Egypt’ is a steal from night music from Act III Scene 1 of Verdi’s Aïda. The other brief pieces are more original but sound much like background music. Perhaps the best are a four minute musical portrait of Mark Antony and the five minute ‘Fall of Cleopatra.’ The four minute ‘Roma Militaris’ consists of menacing fanfares and could be taken for an excerpt from one of the later symphonies. Other Russian composers have written music with this title, as the Pushkin fragment continues to intrigue Russian dramatists.

The Hamlet music consists of Ophelia’s songs and the gravedigger’s songs, as well as five orchestral pieces. The question arose as to whether Danish or English folk songs would be more appropriate, and Prokofiev has chosen to use some ‘English’ folk songs (including The Campbells are Coming!) to set these Russian translations. From the four language parallel texts we learn that the Russian for Hey nonny nonny hey nonny is Zi vertis, vertis, vertis, vertis which can be roughly re-translated as ‘round and round and round.’ The songs are pleasingly lyrical and well sung, and the orchestral sections demonstrate Prokofiev’s amazing ability to write deliberately unfocussed music that can be trusted to remain in the background.

Paul Shoemaker

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