Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Semyon Kotko, a suite Op.81bis (1941) [36:03]
Waltzes, a suite Op.110 (1940-46) [27:42]
St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Titov
rec. St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg, Russia, 4-7 September 2009
Wartime Music: Vol.10
“The Wartime Music CD series includes symphonic opuses of several Russian composers created in the years of terrible ordeals undergone by our nation in the Great Patriotic War. The main goals of the unique project are to preserve the creative heritage of outstanding figures of Russian culture, and to restore historic justice in respect of undeservedly forgotten compositions and authors.”
This statement appears on all the discs in this series of which these two Prokofiev Suites constitute volume 10. As a concept it is both interesting and valid while at the same time highlighting political/social imperatives of the time that influenced the composers and the work they produced. Northern Flowers is a label new to me and they seem to be taking up the reins where the now defunct and lamented Olympia label left them some years ago. However, whereas Olympia primarily licensed recordings from Melodiya in the years before the fall of the Soviet state Northern Flowers commission their own new recordings with what one might hope would prove to be the advantages of modern engineering and performance. Unfortunately this does not seem always to be the case. The ‘house’ orchestra for this project – the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra – do not play at as consistently high a technical level as we tend to expect these days and more damagingly the interpretations lack the fire and thrust so beloved of Soviet performances of old. The recording itself is quite curious, resonant - as befits the church location, the bass drum rumbling impressively - without being rich. I could do with less ambient acoustic in favour of a more even acoustic balance. By coincidence I acquired at the same time as listening to this disc the Brilliant Classics cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies from Walter Weller and the LPO/LSO. Whatever the many musical merits of that set the Decca-sourced recordings from the Kingsway Hall in the mid-1970s – mainly engineered by the legendary Kenneth Wilkinson – remain simply superb: a perfect fusion of detail set in the framework of a believable orchestral sound all in the ideal ambience of the Kingsway Hall. Prokofiev is not the subtlest of orchestrators and any synthetic spotlighting tends to reinforce that view.
Both the pieces on this disc are available elsewhere – most notably performed by Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos (now on CHAN10485X) coupled with a suite from The Gambler. This coupling is unique and the music is as good as one might expect but I would strongly suggest seeking out the other versions. Semyon Kotko was the first opera Prokofiev wrote after his return to the Soviet Union. The liner-note makes clear that his objective with this work was to try to embrace the ideological dictats thereby producing work which was superficially – at least – simpler, more accessible and based in part on folk culture both musically and in terms of narrative. Prokofiev drew a suite from the opera as early as 1941 for the 50th Anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The outbreak of the war delayed the premiere by two years by which time the storyline about fighting Germans in the Ukraine was even more relevant. However, in comparison with the even more overtly heroic symphonic works – many of which feature elsewhere in this series – this suite was deemed too lyrical and ‘bright’. Not that that is my impression – particularly when you consider three of the eight movements have the titles Execution, The Village is burning, and Funeral. This is an extended suite running to more than half an hour and broadly following the dramatic arc of the opera. I have not heard the opera (see review review review) so am not in a position to comment on how effectively Prokofiev has lifted the music from the larger work. Certainly it contains all the angular lyrical melodic outlines that typify Prokofiev and my problems with this performance immediately appear. The phrasing by the strings in particular is lumpy rather than sinuous. The first two movements in particular feel uncharacterised – there is plenty of atmosphere and drama yet to come implicit in the music but the feeling here is dutiful rather than dramatic. Try the climax to the second movement Semyon and his mother [track 2 2:40] where the violin line is doubled by the horns and wind – where is the cathartic release surely required? Whether it is a function of the engineering or the playing quieter dynamics are rarely achieved and in the best/worst old traditions of Melodiya engineering there are some very synthetic balances with solo woodwind ably seeing off a full brass section. There is some typically exciting playing however – as ever Russian brass and woodwind can be counted on for character - but the strings in particular sound one rehearsal short of unanimity and the whole disc smacks of a read/record session rather than a thoroughly prepared project. This is not a work I know well but the interpretation lacks differentiation. I am sure there is more character and colour to be found here. Lines which sound as though they were original vocal parts have a rigidity of phrasing that makes them sounded stilted and square. Try The Betrothal [track 3]. Around 3:00 there is almost no ebb and flow to what sounds as though it must have been a sung line. Track 5 Execution is more successful relying on powerful brass and percussion - the common heritage with the duelling scenes in Romeo & Juliet is clear - although I can imagine the terror being better sustained. Again the resonance allows the percussion writing to dominate and obliterate much of the orchestral detail. The final movement with elements of a rather hollow “happy ever after” ending is the least musically satisfying precisely because it does sound like the most dutiful part of the work. I must reiterate that this is not a work I know well at all but my instinct is that there must be other more compelling versions to be had – my attention does not often wander in this composer’s work but it did here.
The other work is curious in that Prokofiev gave it a separate opus number but it is in effect a group of waltzes assembled from other dramatic works. He did re-write elements of the music to account for the concert or non-vocal setting but essentially this is a compilation work. It is fascinating how Prokofiev took one of the most traditional and indeed bourgeois musical forms and used it to carry the greatest emotional weight in so many of his most important works. No listener should worry that an extended sequence of waltzes will prove dull or repetitious – far from it. Generally the orchestra sound more alert and engaged although I still find the interpretations to be detached – there is such a wealth of sardonic humour and angular emotion here that these strangely straight performances scratch only the surface. This is still not helped by a recording which contains almost no truly quiet playing which leaves textures congested. The backbone of the suite comes with three waltzes from the ballet Cinderella. It is always a pleasure to hear this music but to be blunt there are numerous versions of these pieces in particular which are more atmospheric: mysterious, sinuous, or grotesque. The orchestra here plays them better because I suspect they are more familiar but aside from some appealingly characterful contra-bassoon playing there is nothing in this performance that should have one seeking it out over others. Least familiar musically is the third waltz which is taken from Prokoviev’s film score Lermontov and is called Mephisto Waltz. Surprisingly un-devilish it whirls along as some kind of possessed spinning-top. Most extraordinary in its transformation of waltz form to something quite individual is the great Act III Slow Waltz from Cinderella that appears as the fourth movement. Sadly, the performance here lacks the tonal technical or interpretational refinement to engage the listener as music of this stature demands. I never thought I could find this music dull until now. Where is the yearning, the love through pain? The final two movements reinforce the impression that this is a fine suite in a mediocre performance. Don’t get me wrong, this is not out and out bad just not good enough to displace other versions. I notice from the photograph of the orchestra on the back of the liner that they appear to play off a chamber-orchestra size string strength – it looks like they have about players. This might have been reinforced for the recordings but it might go some way to explaining the undernourished string sound. These are big scores and they require a symphonic string section; anything less is a false economy.
I very much applaud the concept behind this series as well as the fact that a small independent CD label has undertaken it. I hope that other discs will prove to be more exciting and engaging as musical experiences.
Nick Barnard
I hope that other discs in this series will prove more exciting and engaging ... see Full Review