Prokofiev: Symphony No. 4, The Prodigal Son
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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 4 (revised 1947 version) & L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son)
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Prokofiev's imposing Fourth Symphony and his final ballet for Sergey Dyagilev, The Prodigal Son, share common roots but are entirely distinctive in character. The vivid depictions in the ballet's moral tale include sensual temptations, drunken debauchery, robbery and remorse. The 1947 revision of the Fourth Symphony, lengthened and enriched in orchestration by the addition of a piccolo clarinet, piano and harp, makes extended use of themes from The Prodigal Son as well as unused material. Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony with Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (8.573029) was described as 'an outstanding achievement' by BBC Music Magazine.
"Alsop and the Sao Paulo Orchestra perform both symphony and ballet with virtuosic zing." --Listen Winter Reviews, 2013
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After a cool reception in Boston, where the Fourth was premiered under Koussevitzky in November, 1930, Prokofiev felt stung by accusations that he had cribbed from himself, and the new symphony was withdrawn. Jump ahead to 1946, when a Stalinist henchman named Zhdanov launched a public attack against both Prokofiev and Shostakovich for "formalist" tendencies. At the suggestion of the authorities, Prokofiev had already decided to revise the Fourth so extensively that it became almost a new work, but not necessarily a better one. The premiere was delayed until 1957 - Prokofiev had died in 1953, on the same day as Stalin.
For many listeners, even devotees of Prokofiev, the Fourth remains a stepchild, never rising to the brilliance of Sym. 1 and 5 or the slightly more erratic inspiration of Sym. 6. Unable to decide between the two versions, Gergiev offers both in his complete symphony cycle. The 1947 version is longer and larger in conception, but this only highlights the mundane quality of the material, which mostly feels like rejected episodes from a ballet, closer to the dreamy sections of Romeo and Juliet than the macho pounding of The Prodigal Son. In fact, the sameness of tone that permeates the first three movements is fairly baffling; none of the themes are emorable. One often feels that a talented imitator has written a Prokofiev pastiche. The finale imitates The Prodigal son in its percussive energy but half-heartedly.
Hearing the ballet immediately afterwards is a mixed blessing. We get to note the parallels between the two scores, which are intriguing, but it's hard to care very much, since The Prodigal Son isn't top-drawer Prokofiev, either. In Russia the entire output of Shostakovich and Prokofiev is standard fare, but as with Sibelius, they were geniuses who churned out a raft of workaday stuff. The reason the Prodigal Son survives is that it provides a spectacular turn for a great male dancer like Baryshnikov - it's such a star turn that you hardly pay attention to the music. If one had to choose, however, this is the stronger score compared with the Fourth Sym., and a good number of episodes feel fully energized and propulsive.
Alsop and her excellent Sao Paulo orchestra do will in this music, particularly the ballet, which is done with warmth and refinement. Naxos's recorded sound is also first-rate, as we've come to expect in the past decade. The real challenge, however, comes in trying to ignite interest in the Fourth Sym., and here I found alsop too tame. Gergiev seemed to flag here, too, so it may be up to one of the brilliant young Prokofiev mavens - Petrenko and Jurowski - to bring the music to life.
Prokofiev tames the chromaticism of Fiery Angel/3th symphony/Quintet and offers us his new vision of harmony. These very works, along with the 5th piano sonata and, a little later, the 1st string quartet, are the masterpieces after Fiery Angel, and Symphony No.2. Devotee of Prokofiev/Santa Fe Listener, should rain himself in, a bit - way off.