Friday, December 31, 2010


Aimez-vous Prokofiev?

Reader, do you find nowadays that some folk like everything that the famous composers write, a blanket hurrah for every opus? This saves discriminating or making judgement but it commits the listener to applauding every contrapuntal bar of old J.S.B., every minuet, ecclesiastic cliché and chunk of dinner fodder that Mozart penned, every battle symphony and occasional cantatas of the Man from Bonn and every sixteen-verse song and tedious finale of Schubert. Fast forward a century or two to consider the vast output of Sergei Prokofiev: Masterpieces galore, lyrical treasures and electric wonders, yes, but also melody-free grim numbers like the Fiery Angel, boring operas and ballets like Semyon Kotko, The Gambler, Betrothal and the Stone Flower, symphonies 2 and 3, comissarselicking cantatas, desiccated stuff where the composer is writing as if suffering from compositional constipation or trying to please his peers who were only too willing to strangle new works at birth, labelling them undanceable, unplayable or 'formalist'.

Of course it is the masterpieces that we remember but the works in the B list get a hearing now and then. On December 17 in the Festival Hall it was the E flat minor Symphony No. 6 that was featured in a BBC concert, excellently played by its S.O. under the persuasive baton of its music director, Jiri Beholavek. This piece received praises in the Soviet until the commissars thumbed it down. Too often it sounds like a badly carved jigsaw, scraps of Romeo & Juliet, the Symphony No. 5, even a cadence from Parsifal, all beautifully and typically orchestrated with the bass entrusted to the tuba and tinkles from harp and celesta. It also has a cheeky finale tune, thumping percussion and an inconclusive ending. Were the comissars right, for once? (As maybe they were earlier when they so brutally humiliated Shostakovich – but wasn't his music getting too brittle, too outlandish in its modernistic gestures?) Brutal, yes, but subsequentently his music was better focused.

What supreme irony it was that Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin – the Master and the Monster!

Before the symphony the world premiere was given of an Oboe Concerto by the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie (b. 1961) played by a Russian virtuoso, Alaxei Ogrintchouk. The concerto – vaguely tonal – begins and proceeds oboeistically with quick runs and roulades, passages of volatility as slippery as a bucket of eels, punctuated occasionally by angular groupings of orchestral support. One waited in vain for some solid musical treatment but the eels prevailed until the end some twenty minutes later. The soloist showed great stamina, like a well-trained athlete, even though he did give mighty gasps at the end of some bouts of semi-quavers. The conductor had to work hard too, but he was up to the task. They finished together! The composer was present to acknowledge the applause and thank Ogrintchouk, for whom the work was written.

1 comment:

Susan said...

There's a great line in "Stalin's Funeral" about Prokofiev picking the wrong day to die.