Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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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.

Sarcastic Darkness

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Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 / Piano Sonata No. 3

Gary Graffman, piano / George Szell / The Cleveland Orchestra

Columbia MS 6925

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a Prokofiev freak. The Piano Concerto No. 2 reaches levels of virtuosity, poetry and lyricism that can’t be surpassed. And when you add in the Piano Sonatas, the 6th Symphony, Visions Fugitives, the string quartets and the violin concertos and the cello sonatas and the operas, you’ve got a body of work that touches on everything from romanticism to atonality with complete originality.

Of all the concertos, the 3rd (1921) is the most performed. As with so many of his works, Prokofiev offsets striking lyricism with sarcastic dissonances and little inside jokes, like some postmodern standup riffing on his own material. A sweet clarinet intro leads into an orchestral crescendo, which is augmented by bursts from the piano, turning quickly into a somewhat manic fantasia.

Later, lines and lines of octaves in triplicated rhythm force the pianists hands to practically play on top of each other. The opening is recapped in variously structured ways, which leads to a coda of triads and glissandi and incredibly nimble 16th-note arpeggios before ending with open C octaves that gives the piece that meta feel. And that’s just the first movement. Next up, the Andantino is basically a set of variations, while in the last movement, Prokofiev said, a fight breaks out between pianist and orchestra. Here and in the 1st Concerto, which also appears on this album, Prokofiev is a one man history of classical music, blending and bending classicism, neoclassicism, serialism and romanticism into a single intricate package.

Several excellent recordings of the 3rd have made their way onto vinyl, with Argerich/Abbado on DG from the 1960s near the top, along with performances by Gutierrez, Kissin and Bronfman more recently. For me, Graffman/Szell is the gold standard. The pianist digs in with a clarity and ferocity you wouldn’t believe possible considering the hyper-virtuosity needed to pull of these concertos.

The Notorious 2nd

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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2

Jorge Bolet, piano / Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Thor Johnson

with Piano Concerto No. 5

Alfred Brendel, piano / Vienna State Opera Orchestra / Jonathan Sternberg

Vox/Turnabout


To the devil with all this futurist music!

-An audience member at the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Of Prokofiev’s five piano concerti, Gary Graffman and George Szell own nos. 1 & 3, and Richter’s 5 is a touchstone. The 4th, composed for Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother, isn’t performed all that much. But the 2nd Piano Concerto in G minor is a rampaging beast that was rarely performed at all until fairly recently. On vinyl, you can choose between a handful, with those by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Jorge Bolet standing out. Here’s a big difference between them: Ashkenazy plays the concerto competently and with some panache in the thornier parts. Bolet, on the other hand, tears through the untamable beast like a possessed man.

And you kind of have to be in order to bring off the work. Virtuosic, mercurial, explosive, uninhibited, complex, with violently shifting moods, it’s epic and epically tricky to perform. The 1st movement cadenza, lasting over 5 minutes, is considered the most difficult in classical music (edging out Rachmaninov’s cadenza from the 3rd Piano Concerto). Romantic, classical and atonal sounds mingle, descending like a nightmare into ferocious clashing runs and distressing cadences as it becomes more and more technically demanding. It sounds like a musical deconstruction of music, and maybe even of the world itself.

The 2nd premiered in 1913, with Prokofiev at the piano. Here it’s partnered with a 5th Piano Concerto, played by Alfred Brendel (at his best, I think, when performing Mozart and Haydn, and not so much with modern fare). As far as the performance is concerned, which originally appeared on the Remington label, it might be the first ever recorded version, and it’s definitely a protean showstopper. The pianist snipped out a couple measures in the cadenza, but the entire concerto is played with superhuman dexterity, brawn and, when called for, astounding sensitivity. Bolet was a powerhouse, shirking classical composers and going straight for Liszt and the high Romantics, and so is a natural choice for this most brassbound of concertos.

And it should be reiterated that the conductor’s name is Thor.