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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Naxos 8.553054

Symphonies #3 & 7

  • Symphony #3 in C minor, Op. 44 (1928)
  • Symphony #7, Op. 131 (1953)
Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.553054 - 66min
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Summary for the Busy Executive: You owe it to yourself to discover these symphonies, if you don't already know them.

Volume 2 in Naxos's Prokofieff integrated symphonic cycle with Kuchar and his Ukrainians. Again, I will not review all the volumes, since the Fifth in particular has garnered many great performances over the years, and Kuchar's gives you no reason – other than price, an inordinate fondness for the coupling of the patriotic The Year 1941, and collecting for its own sake – to prefer it. Prokofieff used to be the great Soviet symphonist, with Shostakovich a facile parvenu. Now, of course, Shostakovich dominates and Prokofieff comes across as both facile and ponderous. I wish we could hold more than one great Soviet symphonist in our heads at a time, but apparently we haven't enough storage. I'd hate to see Prokofieff's symphonies disappear altogether or dwindle to the Big Three (1, 5, and 6).

I can find hardly any writers to say a kind word for these two scores. Many refer to them as Prokofieff's "lesser symphonies." Well, I suppose. Beethoven's Second is a lesser Beethoven symphony, but who really cares? I've always liked them, undiscriminating fool that I am, although I admit that especially Prokofieff's Third poses many problems to performers and that I've not heard before now a really good recording of the Seventh. My favorite recording (Rozhdestvensky) was an LP in horrible "electronic stereo."

Prokofieff's Third comes from music written for the opera The Fiery Angel, a bit of tosh about demonic possession. As a symphony, its structure is pretty loose, although it delivers a strong narrative thrust. The first movement especially is architecturally clearer than a lot of large-scale Prokofieff, with three basic ideas – unusually stripped-down for this composer, whose incredible gifts of melody and sonority sometimes led him to excess. In the andante second movement, however, Prokofieff indulged his habit of composing separate bits and then gluing the sections together somewhat roughly. One section does not organically follow the next. However, the level of invention is so high, so brilliant, that it sweeps objections aside. The finale to me is the most remarkable movement, particularly the end, not really a recap, but a review of all the themes: it's as if you're watching fish in a large tank swimming by. Finally, the work is too thickly scored. I've seldom heard the bass drum so prominent in any work not by Prokofieff. He seems to have loved him that thud, which of course covers up everything else going on at the same time. Compared to what he did in the Second Symphony (where he dials the bass drum up to a Nigel Tufnel 11), Prokofieff exercises restraint, but the instrumentation still tends to overwhelm the music, if the performers aren't careful. I liked my RCA LP of Leinsdorf and the Boston, which may be available on CD. I've never heard the opera. I hope the singers can be heard over the orchestra. If Prokofieff kept the same scoring for the opera, I don't see how. Despite all these criticisms, the symphony has great power. The criticisms fall into irrelevance.

Writers have patronized the Seventh. Dorothea Redepenning in Grove pans it, along with other late works, as "curiously colorless," which makes me think she either never heard a decent performance or had the ears of Midas. Unfortunately, she stands in a very large crowd. Part of the problem lies in the symphony's dedication to Soviet Youth, part due to its appearance after the weighty Sixth Symphony and the intervening Zhdanov decree of 1948. I think critics give too much weight to that event in Prokofieff's case. Not that he didn't write stinkers afterward, but that he wrote stinkers throughout his career, as well as masterpieces. The time has come to listen hard to the late period. For me, the Seventh has always been a miracle work, and I don't understand why it never became one of the composer's hits. It skips with animal lightness and elation, a work that reveals Prokofieff as one of the finest melodists of his time.

The symphony opens with a magnificent tune full of Russian melancholy. Yet it moves right along. In contrast to the Third, there's a lot of "air" around the music, due in some measure to Prokofieff's opposition of extreme high and low sounds, with little in between. Both the scoring and the structure have also become clearer in the meantime. The composer avoids his earlier tendency to pile line on line and theme upon theme – no more than three prominent ones in this movement. The second movement Allegretto trips to a bounding waltz, which in the way it moves, seems to go back to Tchaikovsky, rather than to any of the Strausses. The contrasting tune injects a bit of uneasiness (with an underlying rhythm from Beethoven's Fifth). Like the rest of the symphony, it is poetically scored. As fine has the symphony has been until now, the third-movement Andante boasts a melody as heartbreakingly tender as "Shenandoah." For this alone, the critical dismissal of this symphony is inexplicable.

The vivace finale brings to mind the fleetness and grace of the quick sections of the Roméo and Juliet ballet. However, it's never done with the original ending the composer preferred (the Soviet Composers Union thought it should end optimistically, rather than reflectively) – although I don't sneer at the new ending. The lack of Soviet aesthetic twaddle, despite the very best efforts of the Composers Union to meddle, amazes me. This whole movement breathes genuine optimism and joy in living. However, toward the end, you hear Prokofiev changing direction to something more thoughtful. Then comes the new coda on the opening material, which in a way betrays the goal toward which the music has been heading. Although I don't think any serious harm has come to the movement, it does come over as less than it could have been, but at that, it's still marvelous.

I love Kuchar's interpretive grip on the symphonies. His Seventh counts as the best I've heard and makes a great case for re-evaluation. However, he really hasn't the string section for the Third, pitilessly revealed in the third movement scherzo where Prokofieff divides the strings into 13 parts. The Ukrainians are so weak as to almost disappear. Also, the entire disc sounds as if they recorded in a canyon. There's that much echo, which of course makes hash of the already thick textures of the Third and slightly muddies those of the Seventh. Did the engineer turn the reverb dial up to yet another Tufnel 11?

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.

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