PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7 (Theodore Kuchar/ Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553054)
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891 -1953)
Symphony No.3 in C Minor, Op. 44
Symphony No.7 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131
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 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 A Lady Macbeth of the 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.
In 1920 Prokofiev had first conceived an opera based on a novel by Valery Bryusov. It seemed that with the support of Mary Garden at the Chicago Opera there was some hope of a performance of The Fiery Angel, a work that, set in sixteenth century Germany, treats the subject of diabolical possession, a contemporary preoccupation of other composers, such as Franz Schreker and Siegfried Wagner. When it became clear, particularly with the departure of Mary Garden, that there would be no production of the work, Prokofiev decided to make other use of some of the material, conceived, as he himself said, in symphonic terms and not as part of the opera, in a new symphony. His intention resulted directly from a concert performance of the second act of The Fiery Angel given by Koussevitzky in June 1928. The Third Symphony was dedicated to Myaskovsky and first performed under the direction of Pierre Monteux in May 1929.
The Third Symphony is scored for an orchestra that includes the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, augmented by piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contra-bassoon. There are three trumpets, four French horns, three trombones and tuba, with a percussion section of timpani, bass drum, snare-drum, tambourine, cymbals, bells and gong, with two harps and the usual string section. A repeated figure characterizes the introduction to the first movement, in the expected tripartite first movement form. The principal subject appears first in the French horns. This and the anxious ostinato of the opening are drawn from The Fiery Angel, the principal theme associated with the young heroine Renata's love for the Devil Madiel, with the ostinato of the introduction suggesting her troubled mind. The second subject, marked un poco più tranquillo, is the theme of the knight Ruprecht, who tries to help Renata. The development section is drawn from music in the opera that is associated with the duel between Ruprecht and Renata's former lover, Count Heinrich, identified by her with Madiel. The principal themes are recalled before a conclusion that makes use of the ominous sounds of the contra-bassoon. The following Andante is opened by the lower strings in music drawn from the fifth act of The Fiery Angel, where Renata is now in a convent, the meditative mood reflected in the material now passed to the flutes. There are more ominous suggestions as the movement proceeds. The agitation of the Scherzo was apparently suggested by the last movement of Chopin's Sonata in B flat minor. The novel orchestral effects, achieved in part through the multiple division of the strings into thirteen parts, relax into an Allegretto, before the return of the devilish energy of the first part. The last movement, with its references to earlier material, moods of horror and morbid reflection and very full scoring, leads, with only a momentary relaxation of tension, to a forceful conclusion.
The last of Prokofiev's symphonies, the Seventh Symphony, was completed in 1952, the year before his death, designed, it seems, as a simple symphony for young people. The work is scored for a similar orchestra to that employed for the earlier symphony, without contra-bassoon and second harp and with the addition of a xylophone, glockenspiel and piano to the percussion section, now without gong or bells. The first theme of the opening Moderato movement is entrusted to the violins and this is followed by a second theme, played by bassoons and horns. A third contrasting element introduces a capricious theme and the material is developed, ending with a brief reminiscence of the moving first theme. A waltz-scherzo follows, relaxing into a more expressive trio section, which re-appears once again before the return of the principal theme and a rousing conclusion. An air of tenderness marks the opening of the Andante espressivo, with variations offered of the principal theme, before the return of the theme itself. The following Vivace presents the composer initially in a characteristically playful mood, going on to varied thematic material, after the two themes of the first section. The original ending of the symphony was