The musicologist Richard Taruskin has directed particular ire at those who see fit to construct revisionist public personae
for Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and, as I perused my generously-filled Proms programme booklet, it occurred to me (not for the first time) that the same thing seems be happening to Sergey Prokofiev. To seek to recast his protean oeuvre
in terms of anachronistically imputed “dissidence”, to coerce listeners into a single way of listening, is of itself, surely, a Stalinist project, denying music the semantic indeterminacy that is the very essence and guarantor of its freedom. It isn’t as if left-leaning creative figures in the West have not faced institutionalised challenges of their own. Henri Dutilleux is one of alarmingly few living composers who have managed to build, slowly and independently, a progressive body of work with a realistic chance of survival. Despite the evocative titles and extra-musical inspirations, there are no religious or political agendas here upon which convenient labels can be hung. Two very different responses to difficult times then. And it is possible to admire both, as Valery Gergiev plainly does.
Not that he was taking any risks with this intriguing juxtaposition. Both his Proms programmes this year have consisted largely of music his orchestras have rehearsed and played serially – no bad thing given the overcrowded nature of his own schedule. No-one has ever done more for Prokofiev’s operas and, as we know, Gergiev specialises in the symphonies, too, even if he is not at his very best in the First and Fifth. As recorded he makes the early work seem heavier than usual, preferring not to stress its deft classicism; the Fifth by contrast is fast and furious, riding roughshod over detail. Tonight he showed that his conceptions have not changed radically while the high-wattage music-making for which he is renowned arrived only with the sparkling finale of the ‘Classical’. After the interval, the Fifth proved more compelling in its dark monolithic fashion even if Gergiev’s brusque way with the first movement makes it impossible to pace the second subject poco più mosso
as marked. The symphony’s brutally motoric closing stages are rarely articulated with such splenetic precision but earlier in the finale Gergiev let the tension sag with some distinctly unhelpful nuancing. There were surprising pockets of shaky ensemble, the horns briefly adrift near the start. All four movements were performed without much of a break – and apparently without a toothpick, the latter here replaced by the familiar shimmer. Violins were antiphonally placed with the double basses tucked in behind the Firsts.
In between came Dutilleux. Continuing the celebrations of the composer’s 95th-year, conductor and soloist returned to a work they presented in London in 2009 and have also given elsewhere. L’arbre des songes (written for Isaac Stern) demands much from the soloist, discreet virtuosity in the faster sections and an elevated, almost spiritual quality elsewhere. Leonidas Kavakos, now sporting hippy-length hair and a designer suit, played (from the score) as beautifully as he always seems to, the tone not huge but wonderfully focused and pure, intonation spot-on. Defying the venue’s aural fog, Gergiev made the typically nocturnal instrumental fabric more tensile than usual. Or do I mean louder? The players appeared to relish an exotic palette which takes in oboe d’amore, cimbalom, and a ‘ringing’ percussion contingent. Dutilleux’s gorgeous colours and harmonies came across as absolutely his own even if his dreamlike avoidance of conventional structural markers left a slightly unsatisfying as opposed to intentionally unsettling impression.
The novelty of the night was provided by the fanfare Dutilleux composed as a tribute to his (and Prokofiev’s) great friend, Mstislav Rostropovich, on the occasion of the cellist’s 70th-birthday. Not included amongst Yan Pascal Tortelier’s recordings of the complete orchestral works for Chandos, this turned out to be inconsequential, generic and very brief (much shorter than the stated four minutes). The scoring is for trumpets, trombones, percussion and, after a brief allusion to Dvořák's Cello Concerto, flutes (and piccolos?). It nevertheless provided an appropriate bridge to what is Prokofiev’s most ‘public’ symphony, however you choose to read it.
On a rain-sodden night the hall was not quite full, the audience perhaps a little subdued. Quite why the place was lit up in porn-shop pink will perhaps remain as mysterious as the trajectory of Prokofiev’s career.