Gergiev’s Prokofiev Symphony Cycle

1 May

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.44

2 May

Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 (Classical)
Symphony No.4 in C – Original Version, Op.47
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

5 May (repeated 8 May)

Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.131

6 May

Symphony No.4 in C – Revised Version, Op.112
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 May, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Although the BBC mounted a Prokofiev symphony cycle during the 2002/3 season, it is instructive to hear these works – by, in many respects, the most unlikeliest of symphonists – performed in a concentrated series of concerts. Sir Edward Downes did just that for the Prokofiev centenary in 1991; now, in the year after the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, Valery Gergiev put the London Symphony Orchestra through its paces in a cycle with two undeniable highs and no demonstrable lows – apart from an account of the First Symphony that would barely have stood up as a dress rehearsal.

It is a fallacy to say that the Classical Symphony is as easy to play as it is to listen to. Certainly the rough-edged playing and uneven phrasing which pervaded the first performance suggested that Gergiev was taking the opportunity for a final rehearsal prior to the ‘actual’ performance on Sunday. That account was preferable in every respect save for a slightly more calculated finale: the highlight a Larghetto which combined wistfulness and humour to touching effect. Gergiev rightly sees the piece as sui generis within the cycle as a whole, a statement about composing in the early twentieth-century such as other composers were to make – rather more didactically – in the decades to come.

Those expecting Prokofiev to pursue his revivified Classicism in the Second Symphony were visibly shaken by its acerbic Modernism. Yet this was as finely achieved an interpretation of this recalcitrant work as can be imagined. Gergiev strove to impose formal coherence on the chromatically-saturated polyphony of the opening Allegro: a sonata movement that, typically for this composer, obeys rules that it appears to flout. The second movement Theme and Variations is among Prokofiev’s deepest statements, Gergiev conveying the mesmeric stillness of the fourth variation as surely as the capriciousness of the second or the dynamism of the fifth. The inexorable tread of the sixth variation towards its explosive culmination was rightly viewed as a formal counterbalance to the opening movement, the reprise of the theme thus becoming an elegiac epilogue to the work as a whole. Had Prokofiev himself sensed such coherence, any thought of a three-movement revision would surely never have arisen.

The question of formal coherence should be a more straightforward matter in the Third Symphony, large portions of which are derived from the opera The Fiery Angel (which thus makes the symphony redolent of an earlier stage in Prokofiev’s evolution than the Second, but that’s another story). Yet Gergiev seemed too anxious to demonstrate the thematic logic of the opening Moderato, harried to a culmination not so much frenetic as desperate in its intensity. The Andante was less sensuous than usual and hinted at a malevolence that breaks forth in the scherzo – its rushing sul ponticello violins keenly articulated – and reaches its implacable apotheosis in the finale. Gergiev was keen to run the last three movements as closely together as possible: it imparted a cumulative momentum, but less of an overall symphonic sweep than if the work had been approached as a four-movement entity.

Most commentators point out that neither version of the Fourth Symphony works well in practice: something Gergiev, by including both in this series, gave listeners a chance to decide for themselves. He seemed to think that the original version, recycling the relatively clear-cut neo-classicism of the ballet The Prodigal Son, is more symphonic suite than symphony per se. After a soulful introduction, the opening Allegro was abrupt in its transitions to the point of being brusque. Its main theme among Prokofiev’s finest, the Andante was given room to breathe – Gergiev attentive to the movement’s awkward formal trajectory. The LSO strings seemed unsure of how to syncopate the lightly-ironic intermezzo, while the finale breezed through to a conclusion so provisional as to suggest Prokofiev already knew he had to rework the piece – which he did after Symphony No.6) and creating a more complex work that forms the disturbingly equivocal conclusion to a trilogy otherwise consisting of symphonies 5 and 6.

Odd that the Fifth Symphony is still interpreted as a ‘victory symphony’ when the music is evidently non-victorious. It was this quality that Gergiev brought out so convincingly, aided by judicious textural balance that gave real clarity to the opening Andante’s often-opaque blanket of sound, as well as a cumulative sense of reach that sustains the movement through to its monumental culmination: the waves of sound graduated as to dynamics so that the music felt intense as opposed to sounding merely loud. The scherzo had the right sense of energy spilling over into aggression, and with a nicely insouciant trio – though Gergiev was a trifle literal in regaining the initial tempo. His expressive yet flexible approach to the Adagio – the harmonic dissonance of its central section integrated into the music’s thematic fabric rather than sounding added-on as an afterthought – was well-nigh faultless in execution, while the finale proceeded at an ideally flowing speed to a conclusion less bitingly sardonic than some, but fully in keeping with the barbed optimism of the work as Gergiev conceived it.

Hard to imagine this interpretation being improved upon in its repeat performance, whereas that of the Sixth Symphony definitely had some way to go. A false piano entry on the stark opening brass gesture didn’t help, and Gergiev was initially tentative in the unusually (for Prokofiev) Beethovenian logic with which this first movement unfolds – the musing second theme a little too restive, and the central climax effectively prepared but not quite summoning the anguish that marks out this work as almost unique in the composer’s output. Nor can the pathos of the central Largo be secured merely by the seamlessness with which Gergiev elided its constituent sections – and the main theme needs to be inflected by the trumpet line rather than dominated by it – though the coda had the right easeful intensity. Gergiev barely put a foot wrong in the finale: its ostinato-driven gaiety striking home as Prokofiev snatches despair from the jaws of triumph in a final cadence of lacerating import.

Performing the Seventh Symphony last was fair enough in a chronological cycle, but a work inhabiting much lower a level of intensity than its predecessor cannot but seem anti-climactic. Gergiev seemed unsure how to ‘weight’ the piece accordingly – the opening Moderato was too effortful in its unfolding of essentially clear-cut and emotionally direct themes, the genial waltz-sequence that follows kept strangely deadpan until the hectic jollity of its close. The Andante was simple and unaffected – a sequence of variants (rather than actual variations) on its plain-spun theme – while the finale had an effective touch of ‘knowingness’ to offset its high spirits. At its height, Gergiev prepared well enough for the soulful return of the first-movement theme, though the close could have been more wistful in its leave-taking. The final pizzicato chord (Prokofiev’s first thought rather than the ‘forced’ revision) sounded almost nonplussed in consequence.

A pity that Gergiev chose not to round out his cycle by including other Prokofiev symphonic works – not least the engaging Sinfonietta and the ‘difficult’ Symphonic Song, which latter this conductor made a decent stab at during last year’s Proms. And the relatively poor audience level for some of these concerts points up the risk these days in not including a concerto in the programme; outside the opera house, Gergiev is not quite the sure-fire draw his admirers might like to assume he has become.

Such considerations should not obscure the very real achievement of this cycle: presenting a diverse and far from cohesive sequence of symphonies with an overall conviction as to make one realise that, though he is far from being the twentieth-century’s most significant or vital symphonist, Prokofiev penned some of the most characterful and appealing works in this much-maligned form.

  • Concert of 6 May reviewed separately
  • LSO

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