Prokofiev - 50th Anniversary Edition
Record companies and book publishers are vying to mark the 50th anniversary of Prokofiev’s death in the appropriate style. But there is surprisingly little consensus as to what that style might be. Born and raised in the Russia of the Tsars, the composer-pianist established himself as an enfant terrible of the musical world in the years up to 1918. After the Revolution he lived abroad, only to find himself marginalised, or at least no longer fêted by the modernist critics of the West.
His subsequent rapprochement with Stalin’s Russia must remain controversial, for, while his personal life was variously shattered by the unstoppable momentum of the Terror, he recovered the creative momentum to sustain a uniquely positive response to his difficult and dangerous times. The variety of performance attitudes in these special tribute sets is at least as striking as the supposed idiomatic distance between Prokofiev’s Old Russian, émigré and Soviet era works.
Warner’s offering is voluminous without aspiring to be ‘the only Prokofiev album you’ll ever need’. Investing in all 24 CDs, which you’ll have to do if you want to acquire the bonus disc of piano rolls and archival snippets, means taking the rough with the smooth. Not that there’s anything rough about remastering or presentation standards. The involvement of the Serge Prokofiev Association has presumably helped secure the imprimatur of the composer’s eldest son, Sviatoslav, not to mention an insightful collection of photographs. The choice of a less than usually puckish image of the composer as series leitmotif is intriguing in itself. This is Prokofiev at the end of hislife, older, softer and sicker than we areused to, the man befriended by the young Mstislav Rostropovich and warmly reappraised here in the mildly ‘revisionist’ notes of David Nice and Daniel Jaffé.
Like a Russian doll, the big box contains five subsets also available separately. In Volume 1, Rostropovich’s affection for the symphonies is never in doubt, but his over-insistent nuancing and deliberate tempi mean that the music rarely flows easily enough. The French players fail to make sense of his more implausible ideas, an insanely slow Classical Symphony being one of them. For the general collector, Neeme Järvi’s symphonic intégrale is still the one to go for (he, too, includes both versions of No 4).
Volume 2 is a better bet. Vengerov andRostropovich take what I see I described as‘an unashamedly epic, wide-open-steppes view’ of the First Violin Concerto; Repin and Nagano are lither in its successor. Vladimir Krainev may be less than subtle in his barnstorming set of the piano concertos, but I had forgotten justhow well Rostropovich himself was playing in 1987; there is no Cello Concerto, only themore familiar Symphony-Concerto which receives ardent advocacy indeed. Decca’s ‘Trio’ alternative, centred on superior accountsof the piano concertos from Ashkenazy and Previn, is otherwise less impressive.
Volume 3 contains a more problematic selection of music intended for stage or screen. Two of the six discs are squandered on retreads of Peter and the Wolf in the four major European languages (Patrick Stewart does the English version) and not all the rest are generously filled or even decently played. While Lawrence Foster does what he can with his Monte Carlo orchestra, it isn’t enough to justify the resuscitation of this ill-tuned Prodigal Son suite. Klaus Tennstedt’s classy Lieutenant Kijé and Igor Markevitch’s vintage (1954!) Le pas d’acier are borrowed from EMI.
Volume 4 features chamber and instrumental works and here there is more to admire, not least Repin’s first-rate account of the violin sonatas. Even so, it seems a peculiar idea to include a couple of Prokofiev transcriptions played by the octogenarian Nathan Milstein (though he still cuts the mustard).
Rostropovich’s Erato recording of War and Peace re-emerges as Volume 5. Many have warmed to it, but I doubt that the inclusion of so much Stalinist vamp-until-ready has ever won the piece new friends. Some operas need cuts and this is one of them. Galina Vishnevskaya is, of course, a very great singer and she was the first and definitive Natasha in the 1959 première and subsequent recording under Alexander Melik-Pashayev (Melodiya, 2/97 – nla). Sadly, by the late 1980s, she was unable to pass for a 16-year-old innocent and it was probably a mistake to try. Which is not to claim that Valery Gergiev’s Kirov set is actually preferable.
The more modest Decca ‘compactotheque’ is essentially a trailer for Universal’s back catalogue. Designer-led along jaunty, constructivist lines, it is strongest in the operatic department, something unimaginable only a few years ago and for which we have Gergiev to thank. While there are neither texts nor translations, there’s a finely drawn short biography by Andrew Huth including a section on Prokofiev’s contribution to each of the genres sampled.
The extracts themselves are intelligently chosen and presented more or less chronologically. Ashkenazy as conductor bookends the collection. We begin with the juvenilia of Dreams – a highly evocative performance from the Concertgebouw – and end by sampling the blanched, world-weary ‘innocence’ of the Seventh Symphony (the Clevelanders on decent enough form). The sizeable taster from Gergiev’s Semyon Kotko is particularly useful. Whatever the horrors and compromises attending its original production, this opera deserves to be much better known. Sviatoslav Richter, for one, reckoned it a masterpiece and there’s an excerpt from his own terrific account of the Fifth Piano Concerto to affirm his credentials. On the other hand, Andrei Gavrilov’s blistering Third Sonata is one of the set’s misfires, its lyrical core squashed flat.
In the final analysis, even carefully selected oddments – bleeding chunks without the blood as it were – have their limitations. The Sixth Symphony, arguably Prokofiev’s most profound, most organically conceived instrumental score, doesn’t lend itself to this sort of treatment and hence you’ll only find it (none too well served) in the Warner edition. Eminently worthy and beautifully produced as it is, that mammoth undertaking feels strangely unsatisfying too, a memorial as much as a celebration. There’s too much food for thought, not enough joie de vivre, and the erratic programming may not suit longstanding Prokofiev fans.