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Sergey Sergeyevich PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphonic Suite adapted from The Queen of Spades (arr./adapted Michael Berkeley) [32:11]
On guard for Peace, Op.124 (1950) [33:40]*
Irina Tchistjakova (mezzo; narrator); Niall Docherty (boy soprano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and Junior Chorus*
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 10, 12 November 2008, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow.
CHANDOS CHAN10519 [66:05]
Experience Classicsonline

Neeme Järvi has received critical acclaim from most quarters for his Prokofiev recordings, many of which have involved the RSNO/Chandos combination. This is the first recording of Symphonic Fragments from The Queen of Spades, as arranged and elaborated by Michael Berkeley. Prokofiev was commissioned to write the score for Mikhail Romm's film based on Alexander Pushkin's story The Queen of Spades in 1936. Stalin's directives put an end to this and two other similar projects and the film was never made. Prokofiev's score was, as a result, left unheard, and remained incomplete as regards orchestration. Prokofiev did re-use some of the best material however, and alert listeners will hear fragments which were later to emerge in the Eighth Piano Sonata and the Fifth Symphony. Michael Berkeley was commissioned to complete the score for a ballet called Rushes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2008. Unlike some previous treatments of this music, Berkeley's arrangement gives Prokofiev's music a viable dramatic form, though this remains independent of the original film plot. While the Symphonic Fragments recorded here return to and elaborate further upon the surviving film music the result is an extended concert suite which now has an equally identifiable if less familiar programmatic content to the earlier Lieutenant Kijé suite, which was the only one of Prokofiev's film scores from that period which he himself worked into a concert piece.

The result really is impressive. Yes, the cinematic atmosphere is pervasive, but it also works in its own right, even if one doesn't know the story. There is plenty of drama, from the throbbing bass of the first Allegro, through the melodic expressiveness of the Adagio to the typically labyrinthine harmonic progressions of the Finale. Michael Berkeley concludes the work with an extra little Epilogue take from an early piano piece possibly written while Prokofiev was a student at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. The orchestral playing is grand, and the Royal Concert Hall acoustic gives the whole thing an aura of sumptuous class.

This 'new' suite is here coupled with a justifiably seldom performed oratorio On Guard for Peace, which dates from the artistically restricted post-war years, being Prokofiev's final politically motivated work in a line which reaches back to the 1937 Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution. This is also the last of Prokofiev's choral compositions.

Of the two works on this disc, the oratorio is the hardest to take seriously or hear without a good deal of twitchy wincing. Patriotic bombast lives cheek by jowl with the faux-innocence of propagandist texts sung by a children's choir, and with Samuil Marshak's seemingly endless stream of optimistic Soviet guff this can only really be taken as a souvenir and dire warning of what art can become under certain types of government regime. Prokofiev's brilliance as a composer means that we can make the best of things without having to run to the bathroom too often, and when the mood is brought back for the atmosphere of a movement like the Lullaby then we can hear glimmers of potential, but Irina Tchistjakova's wide vibrato, no doubt entirely in keeping with the musical tradition from which this piece was born, doesn't float my boat in any significant way. Even with such a fine orchestral and choral performance and recording and plenty of grand and impressive nationalistic gestures I can't imagine this work becoming anyone's choice for Desert Island Discs. The finale; The whole world is ready for war against war pretty much sums everything in a magnificently banal theme, one begging to be taken up as a National Anthem by some jingoistic uniform-clad leader somewhere. Eeeuw....!

This disc is a magnificent production and can certainly be applauded on the grounds of sonic quality, fine performance and adventurous programming. It has to be of interest to fans of Prokofiev, and I can guarantee you won't be disappointed by The Queen of Spades. On Guard for Peace is something else however, and comes with its own Soviet Government Stalinist rubber-stamped health warning.

Dominy Clements


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