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NBD0031 - PROKOFIEV, S.: Symphony No. 5 / The Year 1941 (São Paulo Symphony, Alsop) (Blu-ray Audio)
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of the Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of the Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in the United States of America was at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon), a ballet successfully mounted in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
Russia’s Great Patriotic War began with the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, at a time when Prokofiev had been considering again his projected opera on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. With other artists, including his friend Myaskovsky, he was evacuated to Nalchik in the Northern Caucasus. In July he started work on a symphonic suite The Year 1941 which he had completed by November. The work failed to please when it was first performed in 1943 in Moscow and was criticized also by Shostakovich, who found the material insufficiently developed, while official critics found that the music did not match the momentous events of the war. The Year 1941, which even Myaskovsky had not liked, was not published. Prokofiev later made use of some of the score for a film, Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes.
The fifth of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies was written in 1944, culminating, as he suggested, a long period in his creative life. The Fourth Symphony, which uses material from the ballet The Prodigal Son, had been completed in 1930. The new work, which bears some resemblance in thematic material to the Flute Sonata of the previous year, is in four movements, grandiose and unified in conception. It is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, to which piccolo, cor anglais, piccolo clarinet and bass clarinet, with contra-bassoon, are added. There is a conventional bass section of three trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba and a percussion section that includes timpani, triangle, cymbals, wood-blocks, snaredrum, tambourine, bass drum and gong. Piano and harp are used and there is the usual string section. The first movement couples considerable strength with unexpected twists of melody that are highly characteristic of the composer. The strong principal theme is heard at once, entrusted to flutes and bassoons, before passing to the strings and swelling gradually in importance, with a second theme announced by flute and oboe. This grandiose opening to a symphony that has no extra-musical programme is followed by a scherzo that has an equally characteristic first melody played by the clarinet over a constant accompanying pattern provided initially by the first violins, material at one time intended for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The trio section has a touch of that other condemned formalist, Khachaturian, about it, while the scherzo material returns in more sinister form, now a danse macabre. The Adagio is a movement of sustained lyricism, with a fiercely dramatic middle section, followed by a return to the opening serenity of the movement. The finale, with its initial tranquil reminiscence of the opening of the symphony in its introduction, proceeds to an overtly cheerful principal theme, ushered in by a viola accompaniment figure, with a more lyrical second subject. There is a strong Russian element, particularly in a new melody in the basses. The reappearance of the principal thematic material brings the work to an ebullient and triumphant close.
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