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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Naxos 8.553069

Symphony #6

  • Symphony #6 in E Flat minor, Op. 111
  • Waltzes: Suite for Orchestra, Op. 110
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.553069 DDD 70:06
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Strong reading of Prokofieff's best symphony.

This concludes Naxos's Prokofieff symphonic cycle with Kuchar and his Ukrainians. Outside of a dull, dumpy First, the series has featured often-inspired readings of the little-done members, a very fine fifth (among my top five accounts), and a Seventh that opened my eyes on this neglected work. I would rank this up there with several full-priced integral sets.

Prokofieff's main weakness as a symphonist lies in his developments, as an Oedipal Shostakovich repeatedly and with relish pointed out – a little loose. Yet, for me it doesn't really matter. The level of invention is consistently high, and one often encounters passages frankly astonishing. Prokofieff's scoring could be thick – again, a point Shostakovich loved to make – but it was usually gorgeous, even when harsh, and always his own. I suppose right now we consider Shostakovich the great Soviet symphonist, although this wasn't always the case. For me, Shostakovich has the more logical and the more brittle sensibility, while Prokofieff is warmer, more open to natural beauty, more lyrical. Shostakovich argues and convinces. Prokofieff makes you fall in love.

Of the symphonies, I admire the Sixth the most. I don't call it my favorite, because I can't choose from among five others. I've never cared for the Second, although it strikes me as a noble failure, mainly due to an Excedrin headache of a first movement. Prokofieff wrote his Sixth just after World War II, when the Soviet Union suffered more casualties than any other Western ally – over 23 million dead, or more than a tenth of the country. The War looms large in this score, and it's a war observed up close, rather than an abstraction. Prokofieff feels what he feels, not what he should feel.

In three movements, the symphony begins with an unsettled, quietly searching theme. The music becomes more agitated and the theme brutally distorted, until we find ourselves in the middle of calls to arms and alarums in the brass. Yet the music doesn't invoke dreams of glory, but nightmares. It veers into a deeply sad folk-like tune, a kind of farewell to joy, and ends on a quiet variant of the searching theme.

The slow second movement opens in utter bleakness, as if one looked over "the field of the dead." For contrast, a beautiful tune provides some of the most tender music in the entire symphony – tenderness without sentimentality and with a little steel in it. It changes to something like quiet resolution and finishes.

Prokofieff kicks off the vivace finale with fleet runs reminiscent of the fight scenes in Roméo and Juliet or the start of a work like Winter Bonfire, taking a thoroughly physical delight in movement. It certainly doesn't jibe with what's gone on before, and it takes up most of the movement. Then, Prokofieff delivers a genius stroke. About three minutes from the final bars, the music changes character, with a variant of the "searching" theme from the first movement and a brief revisitation of the bleakness the second. The quick music tries to get going again, with a martial variation on a subsidiary theme, but it too bogs down. We end on a series of heavy chords that, at the last moment, changes to a clear major, over almost before it registers. To me, it's an enigmatic ending.

A project close to Prokofieff's heart was the composition of his opera War and Peace. However, in the Forties, particularly after the war, the Soviet cultural climate turned nasty. Stalin, no longer distracted by enemies without, turned his attention to his own citizens, particularly writers, artists, and Jews. The notorious Zhdanov decree of 1948 singled out the best (and a few of the mediocre) of Soviet composers – including Prokofieff, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, Weinberg, and Khachaturian – as anti-Soviet "formalists." Like most of Soviet aesthetics, the charge meant whatever the government wanted it to mean, much like "secular humanist" in the present-day United States. Prokofieff's Sixth, for example, praised by Soviet critics when it first appeared, was specifically condemned in the Zhdanov speech. At any rate, the composer never saw his opera staged, although scenes were given in private performances. The opera finally had its relatively complete première in 1959 in Moscow, six years after the composer's death. However, he managed to preserve two excerpts in the instrumental suite Waltzes.

Waltzes consists of pieces of other works. Besides the two from War and Peace, we get three from the ballet Cinderella and one, "The Mephisto Waltz," from the film score Lermontov. The score will disappoint only those looking for "subtext." Like certain works by Tchaikovsky (and the comparison rises almost inevitably), the suite is "about" little more than gorgeous music. The waltzes are varied and as elegant and piquant as a tiramisu.

Kuchar does well in the waltzes and, I think, gives one of the best interpretations of the Sixth, up there with Rozhdestvensky. Most conductors, including Rozhdestvensky, are determined to wring the last bit of emotional juice out of every measure. Some of them, it seems to me, go over the top into pure wallow. Kuchar, in contrast, moves more lightly (indeed, the fact that his account moves counts as its major strength), without sacrificing the depth of feeling. Kuchar pays us the compliment of not poking us in the ribs, of expecting us to "get" it. Rather than assaulting us, he invites us in to take a look around. I complain only about the recorded sound – too reverberant – the same gripe I have with every other recording in the series. This smears the texture and hides inner parts. I have no idea why the engineers decided on this environment. At any rate, it sounds like they should have hung a few heavy blankets in the hall. Fortunately, the airplane-hanger ambience doesn't cover up the distinction of the reading.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.

Trumpet