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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Tale of the Stone Flower Op. 118 (1948-53)
A ballet in four acts and nine scenes to a scenario by Mira Mendelson and Leonid Lavrovsky from the book The Malachite Box by Pavel Bazhov
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 21-22, 24, 28 Jan 2003, New Broadcasting House, Manchester. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10058(2) [72.39+75.40]


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This recording of The Stone Flower is released to mark the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.

The Stone Flower ballet is contemporaneous with the opera The Story of a Real Man. It was his last ballet and as you can see from the timings is on an ambitious scale inviting comparison with Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. The year was 1948. Prokofiev had put aside thoughts of setting Pushkin's The Stone Guest in favour of a subject with nationalist resonance. Folk material was required by the invitation of Zhdanov's ‘spirit of the times’; an invitation not to be denied.

The hero of the ballet is the artist Danilo. His ‘grail’ is the stone flower hidden somewhere in the caverns of the Copper Mountain. He needs it as the raw material for a malachite vase. The supernatural Mistress of the Copper Mountain guards the flower. Danilo finds it but is enchanted by the Mistress. Katerina rescues Danilo and the flower is won. The villainous bailiff, Severyan, is consigned to the earth.

A reference site for the detail of the plot is www.sunbirds.com/lacquer/readings/1225

While comparisons will inevitably be made with Romeo and Juliet the composer’s creative furnace, rather like that of his close contemporary, Arnold Bax, had faltered by the late 1940s - earlier in Bax’s case. Mind you there are some fine and distinctive moments provided you are braced for sackcloth and ashes along the way. For example, the invention in most of Act III of The Stone Flower is fatigued. Amid this workaday stuff comes Yuri Torchinsky's luscious oriental serenade for the gypsy girl solo; a lovely piece in own right complete with soughing piano (tr.13 CD2).

The first disc has most of the best bits. These range from the rasping abrasion of the firmament excoriating trumpets (tr.1) to stamping rhythmic material (tr.3) to a slippery little tune contrasted with the distanced wooden rattle of castanets (tr.14). There is a Rimskian ‘round dance’ like something from Antar (tr.7) as well as diaphanous gauzy effects and whispered violins (tr. 8. 1.03). The lovely oboe theme in track 9, infinitely tender, is unnervingly similar to a Warlock song; I cannot quite put my finger on which one. This theme is developed with mounting passion by the violins. The wooing of Danilo by the Mistress is portrayed strongly. He is lured with music that is scorchingly supernatural - like an updated version of Grieg’s goblin music in Peer Gynt (tr.16). I thought also of the invocational music towards the end of Martinů’s 1959 Epic of Gilgamesh. Sadly the quality of the music collapses in tracks 17-21. The Devil does indeed have good tunes so it comes as no surprise that the Severyan episodes are good. These include the peremptory trumpet interruption (tr.6 1.52) and suggestions of oppression afoot (tr.3 CD2) in the Mistress’s Warning. The stomping nasal grouching of the tuba, horns and trombones is to be relished (tr.12) as is the Balakirev style nationalism deployed for Severyan’s Arrival (CD2 tr.5).

The second disc has its highlights, though fewer than on the first disc. As a burden it carries the fatigued Act III set-pieces in a hollow tribute (tr.10 - a creaky Russian Dance) to the divertissement dances in Tchaikovsky’s ballets. Outstanding are the lovely flute-outlined melody for Severyan and the workers (tr.3) and Katerina's redemptively innocent theme (tr.14). Interlude II (tr.9) is memorable for the novel textures projected by piano and muted trumpets. Time and again the skills of the BBCPO violins startle and delight as they do in the tenderness of Where Are You Sweet Danilo? (tr.6). The Ural Rhapsody sports stygian brass and pays its dues to nationalism although the coinage is noticeably Prokofiev’s.

Act IV has a jittery fire spirit diverting Katerina from her gloomy thoughts about the lost Danilo. The spirit leads her back to the Mistress who reveals Danilo. He has been turned to stone. Some imaginative orchestration, cousin to the mene mene tekel upharsin music in Belshazzar’s Feast, is used here. Katerina pleads her case for Danilo's return to life and the Mistress concedes. A shared rapture suffuses the orchestra but the Adagio misses the climactic payload of similar episodes in Romeo and Juliet though the repeated step-down note-cell for the french horns makes its mark. The momentary epilogue carries much the same material ending gloriously ablaze with salty dissonance.

Competition comes in the shape of one real contender and another recording currently absent from the catalogue. CPO’s 1995-97 version with Michail Jurowski and the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR is on CPO 999 385-2. In the mists of time you will do well to find the version with Rozhdestvensky and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. This dates from 1968 and was issued in the 1994 on Russian Disc. There is also a VHS video (9031-76401-3) with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich and the Maryinsky Theatre Orchestra is conducted by Alexander Viliumanis. Colin Nears is the director and the running time is 110 minutes. I have not seen or heard these different versions though I have seen comments disparaging of Rozhdestvensky because of allegedly brisk insensitive tempi throughout.

I remember how disappointed I was when I first heard Cinderella. Your expectations of Prokofiev in The Stone Flower need to be realistic. There are satisfactions here but amid material that just goes through the motions. Don’t expect every page to hold your attention. I was rather more convinced by his reviled later operas (Semyon Kotko and The Story of a Real Man) than I am by this late ballet. Chandos, the BBCPO and Noseda give the fillip of intensity that this music deserves and make many moments rise up as classic Prokofiev.

Rob Barnett

 



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