Concert Overture, Op.12
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.44
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 25 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
From its clangourous opening to its descent-into-hell final chord, Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (1928) grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Prokofiev – never one to let material be lost – rescued his music for “The Fiery Angel” after plans for its premiere at the Berlin State Opera fell through. That the opera (which occupied eight years of creation) was never staged in his lifetime was one of Prokofiev’s greatest disappointments (it was first heard in 1955, two years after the composer’s death). Its scenario – “a lurid tale of 16th-century hellraising, invoking devilry, insane nuns and a heroine who is half saint, half whore” – brought out the Expressionist best in Prokofiev, who here created some of his greatest music, which is not only luridly suggestive and packing a severely emotional punch, for it also contains some of Prokofiev’s most heartfelt and outreaching expression.
Alexander Vedernikov knows the opera “The Fiery Angel” from the inside having conducted it with the Bolshoi company, including an appearance at the Royal Opera House in 2006. He conducted an authoritative performance of the symphony, which was lucidly prepared, sounded and balanced, and found the BBC Symphony in very responsive form. Not every motif was quite clarified, and sometimes the attack was a little too comfortable, yet Vedernikov clearly sees the work as a symphony rather than as a symphonic suite from an opera; and, after all, Prokofiev placed no subtitle to the work to associate it to the stage-work. Vedernikov adds a certain flamboyance to his articulate conducting style, a gesturing that paints pictures and draws vivid playing and he is also alive to subtleties and variegation. Standing out here was the third movement, which was dangerously fast – to advantage – and which heightened its strangeness and ominous thumping (by contrast, the trio is a lush expanse of melody), and even placed it several decades later in terms of style, bordering on aleatoricism. Vedernikov’s perfectly-timed attacca into the finale, which can seem a poor relation to its three companions, and maintained dramatic tension through its reptilian stalking, review of past motifs, and a cumulative bursting of seams.
Great to hear live, and arguably the Third, along with the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, are the greater achievements in comparison with the more-often-heard First (Classical) and Fifth. One or two little things aside, this was an impressive performance that left in no doubt as to the music’s stature. It sends one back to “The Fiery Angel” as a compelling opera and at a time when London has recently experienced the “The Gambler”. Timely in its re-release and natty packaging, then, is a collection of Prokofiev’s operas conducted by Valery Gergiev, including the two just cited (Decca 478 2315, 14 CDs).
The concert’s first half had included Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, which here enjoyed some pungent-sounding woodwinds and an edgier orchestral attack than it sometimes receives. If Frank Peter Zimmermann can seem rather nonchalant and objective, the ear tells a different story, and if some of the cruelly exposing high-note writing at the beginning rather caught Zimmermann out, overall this was a performance beautifully judged in terms of tempo, transitions and lyrical feeling: well engineered and, in the finale, infectious.
It was good to also hear Karol Szymanowski’s Concert Overture (1905/13), an extravagant creation that dines out on Richard Strauss (Ein Heldenleben) and Wagner (“Tristan und Isolde”) – scrummy music that is heroic and voluptuous, a tone poem in disguise, for which a scenario could easily be written, especially in this splendidly taut performance that expanded at all the right moments.