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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
Zdravitsa (Hail to Stalin) - Original version of the Cantata for chorus and orchestra, Op. 85 (1939)* [12:51]
Autumnal, Symphonic sketch Op. 8 (1910; 1914; 1934) [7:43]
Hamlet - Incidental music for the play by W. Shakespeare, Op. 77 (The Ghost of Hamlet's Father. Andante lugubre; Claudius's March. Moderato con brio; Fanfares Pantomime. Allegro moderato; Ophelia's first song. Andante; Ophelia's second song. Andante; Ophelia's third song. Andante; Ophelia's fourth song. Andante espressivo; The Gravedigger's song. Sostenuto; Fortinbras's Final March. Andante maestoso) (1938) [21:50]
Tatiana Sharova soprano
Andrei Baturkin baritone
Flourish, Mighty Land - Original version of the Cantata for the thirtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Op. 114 (1947)*
Egyptian Nights - Symphonic Suite , Op. 61 (1938) (Night in Egypt. Adagio; Caesar, the Sphinx and Cleopatra. Andantino; The Alarm. Allegro inquieto; Dances. Allegretto; Anthony. Andante mosso; The Fall of Cleopatra. Lento doloroso; Roma militaris. Andante maestoso) [22:06]
Russian State Symphonic Orchestra and Capella/Valeri Polyansky
Rec. Grand Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, August 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10056 [73.18]

Serge PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
On the Dnieper, Op. 51 (A ballet in two scenes: Introduction. Andante dolce (quasi andantino); Scene 1: The Meeting. Allegro amabile; Mime Scene. Moderato (quasi allegretto); Pas de Deux. Andante mosso; Man's Variation and Finale. Allegro vivace e ben marcato; Scene 2: The Betrothal. Andante; Fiancé's Dance. Allegro risoluto; Fiancée's Dance. Andante con eleganza; Young Men's Dance. Andantino; The Fight. Allegro precipitato; Mime Scene. Moderato; Epilogue. Andante amoroso) (1931) (40.37)
Songs of Our Days - Suite, Op. 76 (March; Over the Bridge. Cavalry song; Goodbye!; Golden Ukraine. Folksong; Brother for Brother; Girls; A Twenty-year old; Lullaby; October Flame) (1937) (25.45)
Victoria Smolnikova, mezzo-soprano; Igor Tarasov, baritone
Russian State Symphonic Orchestra and Capella/Valeri Polyansky
Rec. Grand Hall of the Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, August 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10044 [66.32]

 

Here are two Chandos releases which n each case offer rare pieces by Prokofiev if not recording (or at least CD) premieres.

Prokofiev's return to a Russia now thoroughly possessed by the Soviet system posed its own challenges and expectations. The composer had fled the Soviet Union during its final Tsarist shudders. In those nomadic years he had become an international musical celebrity. His return would need Soviet affirmation. This he sought. Within two years he had written the Cantata for the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution and the cycle Songs of Our Days. These works were followed by Zdravitsa, a cantata written to celebrate Stalin's birthday setting texts from all over the Union each extolling the Leader.

These were not isolated works. In 1947 he wrote Festive Poem for the 30th anniversary of the Revolution and also the short cantata Flourish Mighty Land. The verses of the latter, by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, praise the Union, its founding fathers and the Party. This patriotic cantata speaks confidently of a nation emergent victorious from War. Its themes look back to the ballets of the 1940s. Its choral writing is of the massed ‘stand-and-deliver’ type. In this Chandos version the singing is, as elsewhere, muscular and clearly focused. It is by no means as varied or as engaging as Zdravitsa.

Egyptian Nights is another suite produced around a theatrical event. This involved a hybrid of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra as well as Pushkin's unfinished tale of the same name. I last heard this suite back in 1999 in a BBC Philharmonic Orchestra studio concert with that arch-Russian Edward Downes conducting. It is moody, inventive (listen to the minatory rhythmics of The alarm. Both here, in the burly sections of Dances and in Roma Militaris it is the relentlessly crushing Iron Foundry by Mossolov that comes to mind. There are also portraits of Anthony tr. 18 (rather indebted to Romeo and Juliet) and of Cleopatra facing death.

Songs of Our Days was written in 1937 and was premiered in Moscow on 5 January 1938 conducted by Alexander Gauk. The work sank into desuetude between 1953 and the 1990s because of its explicit references to Stalin. In the Khruschev and post-Khruschev era such references were poison to any chance of revival. This nine movement suite is cheerful - a quality asserted from the outset. You might know Prokofiev’s suite Winter Bonfires once available on Supraphon - it is similar in effect. Folk-serenity and warm evenings take over for the Golden Ukraine (tr. 16) but it is a brief interlude also returned to in the lovely Lullaby including delightful singing by Victoria Smolnikova. This is however a world away from the subtlety of Egyptian Nights. The final October Flame fervently hymns ‘our own wise and beloved Stalin’.

After Songs of our Days, the ballet On the Dnieper is a triumph of half-lights and refinement, of suggestion and subtlety. The scenario presents a series of idealised tableaux of the new Soviet life. While invention is nowhere near as striking as in Romeo and Juliet there are some remarkable moments here in The meeting, the gentle Fiancee's Dance, in the lissom modesty of Mime scene and in the crunching harmonic collisions of Pas de Deux. Man’s Variation and Finale rather suggest one of Shostakovich's ruthless scherzandos as well as Montagues and Capulets. There are similar stompingly scathing echoes in The Fight (tr. 10). The public cheery manner of the Classical Symphony can be heard in the Epilogue, ending amid the prescribed optimism. It was Diaghilev's last commission.

Zdravitsa is, at 12 minutes, something of a pocket cantata though still four minutes longer than Flourish Mighty Land. Its serene opening material is familiar from the balcony scene of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Soon however the choir enters in cheerful mode (it's all very listenable before you become too snooty or censorious about the subject matter). One of the themes suggests that comrade Khachaturyan had been listening when he wrote the grand adagio for Spartacus and Phrygia. The subtle harmonic slides of the violins at 8.12 are one of several striking effects. Some of the pecking choral writing recalls Orff's Trionfi. It is difficult not to be swept along by the final fast-swaying chorus which harks back to the Khachaturyan theme at 12.20 even if the final blaze of light is to the words ‘you are the flame of our thoughts and blood Stalin! Stalin!’

The contrast to be found in Autumnal (sometimes wrongly known as Autumn under which you may know it from a Rozhdestvensky recording from the 1960s) could hardly be more extreme. Although picked over by the composer in 1914 and 1934 the work speaks of an earlier era with a darker-hued atmosphere referring perhaps to the early symphonies and tone poems of Miaskovsky as well as to Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead written the year before. In fairness the piece has more clarity and light than the Rachmaninov, aided by a clear-eared recording and a finely textured approach by Polyansky and the orchestra. It is something of a mood essay and without strongly drawn themes.

Hamlet dates from 1938 and a theatre production by Sergei Sradlov who had collaborated with Prokofiev over the Romeo and Juliet ballet. After a tense rather than creepy Ghost Scene comes a jejune carefree and balletic March for Claudius (the Pantomime is in the same mould), some rather vapid fanfares and finally the subdued Fortinbras March with some superbly captured brass writing adding emotional colour above the massed strings. The four Ophelia songs are admirably sung with eerie gravity by Tatiana Sharova and the oddly sterterous Gravedigger's Song is ringingly rendered by Andrei Baturkin.

Rob Barnett

see also review by Paul Shoemaker CHAN10056 CHAN10044



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