Symphony No. 4 (revised)/Prokofiev

December 19, 2013

prokofiev photo


Born in the Ukraine Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) was tutored in composition by Gliere at the age of five, entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 14 being influenced by Myaskovsky instead of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. At one point in his career Glazunov walked out of a performance of his “Scythian Suite” as he was concerned about his sense of hearing. Prokofiev spent several years in America and Paris before he returned to Moscow just in time for condemnation of his work along with Shostakovich and Myaskovsky as not according to the party lines. He died the same day as Stalin so his work was never given the high praise it deserved as Shostakovich had the benefit of seeing in his lifetime.

The original roots of the fourth symphony come from thematic material from “The Prodigal Son.” It was commissioned as a 50th anniversary piece for the Boston Symphony. This revised version written almost 20 years later when Prokofiev had returned to Moscow has the benefit of a complete revision being nearly 20 minutes longer in length with added instruments (piano, harp, piccolo clarinet) and an overhaul of the orchestration. The revised version has timings of approximately 13, 10, 7, and 10. The original version is 6, 6, 4, and 6.

The slow prelude in typical Prokofiev style leads to a melody taken from “Prodigal Son” that is quite unforgettable with the usual harmonic phrases I’ve grown to love. The second section is a lively upbeat melody that reminds one of a train with the clickety-clack. The brass trumpet and trombone play a key role in the harmony along with the tuba. In this section one can hear the added piano that wasn’t in the original version. The Andante tranquillo is a thing of beauty with a peaceful serene melody being offered by the reed section (flute). It is a departure from the urgency of the first movement and I love the work from the lower register of the orchestra. The third movement begins with a mocking oboe and harmony from the lower string register makes a pleasant on the ears melody. It is allowed to develop with the strings taking over the lead before the clarinet and oboe are allowed to flourish. The final movement begins with a distorted staccato like beginning before we hear a return to the main melody from the first movement. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it as we hear sounds coming from all over the place including tuba. It has what I like to call the mocking sound of Prokofiev. The coda has a sense of returning to the original sounds of the first movement as it concludes.

An ideal choice of a second selection on the CD is where some of the material was originally written for the 4th symphony and that was a ballet that Prokofiev wrote for Dyagilev, his fourth and last. It is a nice way to revisit some of the themes. Other highlights include a nice trombone motif that introduces the dancers in “Les danseurs.” Included in the track is a return to the motor rhythm with staccato notes from the brass. There is a clever melody in “Pillage” which features the bass clarinet surrounded by other reeds while the orchestra is creating sounds from all directions.

This is the second recording that Alsop has made with the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and this reviewer is already looking for more. The recording itself is quite neutral so it allows the true color of the instruments to come through; I’ve never heard a finer wind section. There is no shrilly sound or over volume brass. Each note can be heard in crystal clarity. Prokofiev isn’t the easiest composer to play but you certainly won’t get that impression from this symphony. Alsop certainly knows this material and I look forward to more. Recommended.

Track Listing: Symphony No. 4 (revised edition)

1… Andante-Allegro eroico-Allegretto (13:13)

2… Andante tranquillo (10:05)

3… Moderato, quasi Allegretto (6:41)

4… Allegro risoluto (10:19)

The Prodigal Son

5… Departure (5:07)

6… Meeting Friends (4:14)

7… The seductress (5:01)

8… The dancers (2:48)

9… The prodigal son and the seductress (3:30)

10… Drunkenness (2:21)

11… The despoiling (2:36)

12… Awakening and remorse (3:05)

13… Sharing the spoils (2:51)

14… The return (6:21)


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