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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Audite 97.754

Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op. 74

  • Prelude "A spectre is haunting Europe"
  • The Philosophers
  • Interlude
  • A tight little band
  • Interludium
  • Revolution
  • Victory
  • The Oath
  • Symphony
  • The Constitution
Ernst Senff Chor Berlin
Staatskapelle Weimar & Members of the Luftwaffenmusikkorps Erfurt/Kirill Karabits
Recorded Live August 23, 2017: Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany
Audite 97.754 41:55
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This is a rarely performed work for two reasons: it requires huge orchestral and choral forces and it contains a text that ostensibly is pro-Soviet and pro-Communist. Regarding the latter aspect, this cantata actually appears to be a satire on the Bolshevik Revolution and on Marxist ideas. Is it possible to hear the centerpiece #6, Revolution, in any other way than the depiction of a band of hooligans violently seizing power? Here, in this seemingly reckless sonic escapade, Prokofiev throws in nearly every available kitchen sink – siren, machine gun, speaker shouting through a megaphone, accordion (or bayan) contingent, extra brass, numerous percussion instruments, and much else. When the music nears its end, it staggers to the finish line, not triumphantly, but as if wounded and dying.

The Oath (#8) features a quasi-sacred music style and use of the (religious?) words "vow", "commandment" and "devote". It depicts Stalin's speech at Lenin's bier, a speech in which "Uncle Joe" almost canonizes Lenin Saint Vladimir. (Ah – Prokofiev must have been aware that Stalin once studied for the priesthood in the Russian Orthodox Church!) The music here expresses the irony so deftly that you can almost picture Prokofiev laughing. But also try #2, The Philosophers, wherein a beautiful, almost heavenly anthem is accompanied by a rhythmic chant that seems to scatter in all directions as if the music is both soaring on high and falling apart. The text here is quite serious stuff, the music a deliberate mismatch. Yet, it fits perfectly when you consider the satirical elements. I must further draw attention to the first movement, Prelude, subtitled "A spectre is haunting Europe." Prokofiev's grim, crushing and coldly violent music strikes the listener as a portrayal of some horror haunting Europe rather than the liberating force identified by Marx.

Of course, many believe this 1936-37 cantata was meant as a genuine paean to the Soviet state and nothing more. But Prokofiev, a 1924 convert to the Christian Science religion in France, would certainly not have embraced Marxist ideas so quickly after he officially resettled in the Soviet Union in 1936. However, one can argue with some good reason that the apolitical Prokofiev was a careerist attempting to curry favor with his homeland's leaders. After all, he apparently did so in 1939 with Zdravitsa, written to celebrate Stalin's sixtieth birthday. Thus, at the very least, his effort with this "October Cantata" couldn't have been a sincere one.

Shortly after Prokofiev's return Stalin's reign of terror began. Why would the composer decide to write a piece that heaps praise on the political system which was now sanctioning the imprisonment and even execution of some of his fellow artists? Maybe Prokofiev would be next – Shostakovich harbored such a fear. It would be a ripe moment, however, for Prokofiev to kill two birds with one stone: write a piece that ostensibly praises the Revolution and the Soviet state, while satirizing them beneath the surface. After all, he could always deny any suggestion of satire if one of Stalin's typically dense lackeys in the arts suspected something was awry. It's often hard to prove or even identify a concealed message in a musical composition, and when noticed at all the precise meaning can be hard to discern. Witness the many recent controversies over supposed hidden messages in Shostakovich's music. At any rate, alert listeners will likely see the satire and irony in so much of this Prokofiev cantata. As it turned out, the work was rejected for performance by the State Committee on the Arts and Prokofiev wisely withheld it thereafter. It was never performed in his lifetime.

Of the half-dozen or so recordings I have of this challenging work, this is the lightest in its approach, seeming to be an effort to clarify some of the dense and raucous scoring. From a certain vantage point, I suppose you can argue it's a success in most ways, as Karabits' interpretation is consistent throughout and the orchestral and choral performances are quite fine. That said, I find the trumpets a little bashful in places: try their entry at 4:36 in Revolution. Moreover, I'm not sure Karabits' approach is absolutely convincing. Tempos are generally quite fleet: consider that Neeme Järvi takes 46:41 and Mark Elder 46:43 for their renditions, while this one clocks in at 41:55! Movements #7 (Victory) and the aforementioned #8 (The Oath) are comparatively airy and light when a more emotionally heavy approach would seem more impactful. Still, this is far better than the Mark Elder version on BBC Music, and preferable to the cut Melodiya performance by Kondrashin (#8 and #10 were excised altogether, though #2 was reprised at the end). The Karabits is well recorded too, preferable to the Titov effort, now on St. Petersburg Classics, and perhaps better sounding also than the slightly distantly recorded Järvi on Chandos.

Unfortunately, this cantata hasn't come close to achieving its ideal recording. Even two performances on YouTube by Gergiev, good as they are, especially his Dutch effort, are not without flaws. This masterly Cantata is truly a work that upon repeated hearings offers many treasures in its amazing variety and brashness. Some listeners may view it as flawed for its seeming sonic excesses, but I consider it a masterpiece.

In the end, if I had to pick my preferred choices in this work, I suppose I would opt for the Titov (despite imbalances in the sonics), the Gergiev/Rotterdam performance (assuming it is issued on video), and perhaps this one by Karabits, but mainly for its more up to date sonics. Full texts are provided by Audite to round out what must be regarded as an important recording, one that is a must for Prokofiev's admirers.

Copyright © 2018, Robert Cummings