Prokofiev’s War Symphony

img_2429

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

Odyssey Y35923

Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Butterfly Effect

img_2392

Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5

Karl Munchinger / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

London CM 9378

Schubert got closer to the full metaphysical revelation than any other composer.

-John Harbison


Franz Schubert, according to his drinking and eating buddies, composed maniacally–on tablecloths, on menus, on anything that was handy in whatever tavern he happened to be in. At the piano, he’d sit, as one friend said, and would so totally subsume himself in the music that he’d become nearly unrecognizable.

Yet very little of his output, until relatively recently, was part of the standard repertoire. Sergei Rachmaninov, in the 1920s, wasn’t even aware that Schubert had even composed piano sonatas, which seems a tad apocryphal.

Of the 9 symphonies, or 8, since No. 9 is sometimes called the 7th–not mentioning the outlines of the 10th, which would be another unfinished symphony, and so would be considered the 9th (on that matter, Luciano Berio has an interesting piece called “Renderings” that mixes those sketches with reworkings of his own). Regardless, the “Unfinished” and the 9th (7th) are obviously the most played, and contain some of the greatest movements in the symphonic repertoire.

Compared to those, Schubert’s previous symphonies are very much in the Haydn/Mozart mold, so much so that they seem to be from different eras, as though Beethoven had gone from an early piano sonata to the op. 132 Quartet. Listen to the 6th and then the 8th and it’s like flipping from classical to full-fledged Romantic. Unbelievably, the 2 symphonies conducted by Munchinger here, the 4th and the 5th, were both finished in the same year, 1816, and though they share a classical pedigree, the 5th is certainly the lighter of the two.

A spirited symphony, it begins with an Allegro and proceeds in B-flat minor in a search for the introductory theme, then offers a surprise by previewing the melodies of the middle sections. Schubert dispenses with the usual instrumentation, doing away with clarinets, trumpets and timpani, either out of necessity for what was available to him, or to pay homage to Mozart, who left out those same sections in his 40th Symphony. Music historians have pointed out the similarities between that symphony, and also the 5th’s resemblance to Mozart’s Violin Sonata in F major.

These symphonies owe a lot to Schubert’s fore-bearers, and contain only a seed of the emotional intensity that would burst forth like the two butterflies on the front of this recording in his latter symphonies.

Symphony Fantastic

img_1624

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5

Bernard Haitink / Concertgebouw-Orchester, Amsterdam

Philips / 2xLP box set

Anton Bruckner could have been a pseudonym for Richard Wagner. His symphonies, starting with Symphony No. 0 and concluding with his unfinished 9th (a few conductors have finished it for him) are ear-throbbing, transcendent, huge-scale, depressing, uplifting, mercurial and quite simply orgasmic listening experiences. Jochum, Bohm, Celibidache, Barenboim have all championed his music. Pick any symphony and you’ll hear why.

The 5th Symphony, however, opens not with a huge shuddering roar, but with cellos and basses plucked in the softest possible pianissimo. Robert Simpson, in his monograph on the composer, says that “no symphony has has ever opened like this”. For those used to Bruckner’s colossal symphonies, which sound like a thousand orchestras in tandem, it’s a shockingly subdued intro.

Throughout the work, themes emerge and disperse, only to come to gradual realization in the chorale of the final bars of the Allegro moderato. As Michael Steinberg points out, the preceding movements come across as overtures to the “dialectic” of the ultimate fugal unfurling. Bruckner is known for his colossal finales of completely deranged counterpoint (just listen to the 7th, or the 4th, or the 8th, or any of them, actually).

Bruckner’s lengthy symphonies are big oceanic forces of nature. Different in many ways, the 5th partakes in that same ferociousness. But it’s at times tempered in equal parts by an expansive quietude that’s no less intense for its ethereal subtlety.

Bernard Haitink, another Bruckner enthusiast who at one point or another performed Bruckner’s entire symphonic output, gives a measured performances that perhaps reins in a little too much Bruckner’s explosive outpourings. (Compare it to Solti’s unbridled Romantic splurge of noise.) Hopefully, someone will press Celibidache’s live recordings of the symphonies for EMI–performances that reach such a level of quasi-mystical heights you might want to listen to it in segments (a few times when an especially tense climax builds and breaks into resolution you can actually Celibidache give a shout of what sounds like relief). And after that hypothetical label presses those hypothetical recordings, maybe they could, hypothetically, continue with the rest of his discography?

Until then, Jochum on DG is a true impresario with the symphonies.

Shostakovich Is Sorry/Not Sorry

IMG_6114

Nobody captured the katzenjammer of interior and external conflict like Dmitri Shostakovich. His milieu was incendiary: WWI, Stalinist purges, WWII, more Stalinist purges. Duality was hoisted on him: on the one side constrained by the Soviet Union’s artistic repression (if you weren’t into social realism you were blacklisted or worse), and on the other his pursuit of modernist forms of expression.

After the debut of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned in 1936, he was publicly denounced, and he slept for days in the stairwell outside his apartment waiting to be taken by Soviet authorities for his dissident music-making.

The 5th Symphony was his apology for sidestepping Stalin’s favor, though with someĀ  very subtle acts of subversion thrown in. It worked and he was installed as the de facto propagandist, with his 7th Symphony (“Leningrad”) becoming something of a rallying cry during WWII.

Yet everywhere in Shostakovich’s music there’s the purgatorial rage of a man stuck between his innate sense of cultural identity and what his country demanded of him. During the Col War, his music was a surprisingly huge draw in the US. When he finally arrived in America it was with a contingent of KGB operatives tailing him everywhere to make sure he wouldn’t defect to the enemy.

Vladimir Golschmann, a great champion of avant-garde composers, recorded this 5th for Capital Records, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It’s a sweeping performance that skimps on some of the more overt patriotic bombast.