October 23, 2008


Prokofiev: The Symphonies. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Phoenix Edition. $34.99 (5 CDs).

Kabalevsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. NDR Chor, Choir of Hungarian Radio and NDR Philharmonie conducted by Eiji Oue. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     One of these 20th-century Russian composers is known for less than half his symphonic output and one is not known as a symphonist at all. As a result, these sets of symphonies offer an unusual chance to explore less-than-familiar orchestral repertoire and discover some surprisingly attractive music.

     Sergei Prokofiev has the distinction of having written eight symphonies numbered 1 through 7: there are two entirely different versions of No. 4, one from 1930 and one from 1947. But only three of his symphonic works are heard with any frequency: No. 1, the “Classical” (1916-7); No. 5 (1944); and (to a lesser extent) No. 6 (1945-7). The excellent playing of Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and knowing interpretations of Dmitrij Kitajenko notwithstanding, this is unlikely to change: the three most-popular Prokofiev symphonies are in fact his most attractive works in the form. No. 1 is a perfectly poised, elegant 20th-century tribute to Haydn (as Weber’s two symphonies were 19th-century tributes to that quintessential symphonist); No. 5 is a brilliant and biting World War II work of substance and intensity; and No. 6, which essentially looks back at that war, is a gigantic three-movement structure, somber and agitated, with a pervasive sense of loss even in triumph. The remaining symphonies pale beside these three, yet each has interesting elements and each shows something about Prokofiev’s compositional development. No. 2 (1924-5) is a product of the ferment of Paris in Weimar Republic days, and is a great, complex, noisy work whose two movements were inspired by Beethoven’s final, two-movement piano sonata (No. 32, Op. 111). Prokofiev’s second movement, a theme and variations, lasts nearly half an hour and is the longest symphonic movement he wrote. The work clatters and bangs and is percussion-heavy (it requires three percussionists). It is more reflective of its time than of Prokofiev himself, but certainly shows how he handled the commission of a work specifically designed to be “modernistic.” No. 3 (1928) is based on music from Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel and mixes mysticism with the sounds of hysteria (in the third movement, the strings are divided into 13 parts). The first version of No. 4 is also based on theater music – in this case, the ballet The Prodigal Son – and actually sounds a bit like a dance symphony. It was the last symphony Prokofiev wrote before returning to the Soviet Union. The second version of No. 4 is larger, longer, heavier and more self-consciously emotional – it was in fact finished after No. 6. Prokofiev’s final symphony, No. 7 (1951-2), is rather lightweight and was designed, like his other late works, to convince Soviet authorities that he was toeing their mandated musical line. It is charming and nostalgic, but in many ways a throwback after the anguished grandeur of No. 6. Kitajenko, born in 1940 in what was then Leningrad, has tremendous affinity for Prokofiev’s music, and his cycle of the symphonies effectively showcases their richness as well as their shortcomings.

     There was one major Soviet composer, and only one, who was never condemned by state authorities – not a single time. That was Dmitri Kabalevsky, whose works were considered bastions of Socialist Realism and always sufficiently uplifting (especially of Soviet youth and therefore of a Bolshevik future) to be deemed correct and appropriate. In post-Soviet times, and indeed during the Cold War, this put Kabalevsky at a worldwide disadvantage, making it easy to dismiss his output as mere propaganda. It was that – much of the time, anyway – but it was also more than that, as the first-ever recording of his four symphonies shows. Eiji Oue has clearly studied this music and figured out how to present it to best effect, downplaying some of its crudities and giving it as much respect as possible. The sensitive conducting does not turn these compositions into major works or their composer into a first-rate symphonist, but it does make as good a case for them as is likely to be made. Kabalevsky’s first three symphonies are all in minor keys: No. 1 (1932) in C sharp minor, No. 2 (1934; actually the third written) in C minor, and No. 3 (1933; the second written) in B flat minor. No. 1, originally planned as a cantata comparing czarist and Soviet Russia, is a two-movement work that contrasts the oppression of the past with the uplift of the Soviet era; but the subtext is unnecessary to enjoy this highly accessible music, which starts in darkness and proceeds to light – albeit rather too obviously. No. 3, known as “Requiem for Lenin,” is a choral work written for the 10th anniversary of Lenin’s death and having more the feeling of liturgy than of the concert hall. Its music and text are designed to mirror the notion of struggle leading eventually to triumph, in Lenin’s footsteps and his name; thus, this is the most overtly propagandistic of Kabalevsky’s symphonies. No. 2 is a much more interesting work, its melancholy central slow movement framed by two brighter, pleasant faster ones – a light work, all in all, but one with some solidity at its core and no overt propaganda purpose. Kabalevsky’s longest and most interesting symphony, though, is his last, No. 4, which is in C major and dates to 1955-6. It is based largely on themes from the composer’s opera, The Family of Taras, in which heroic Soviet workers fight the Nazis, suffer and die for their country. The symphony works, however, without knowing this background; works better, in fact. This is the only Kabalevsky symphony that succeeds in a traditional way, through the development of interrelated themes and the contrast among movements (it is his only symphony in the traditional four movements). The orchestration is also more successful here than in Kabalevsky’s earlier symphonies, and the work as a whole conveys emotion as well as structural assuredness. Even this is not a great symphony, but it is a very good one and is worth at least occasional hearings as more than a curiosity of Soviet days.

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