Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphonies – 1 December

Symphony No.4 in C, Op.47 (1930)
Symphony No.4 in C, Op.112 (1947)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Edward Downes

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 December, 2002
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London

Among the most directly appealing of his orchestral works, Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony is also among his least played – its genesis a confusing and unsatisfactory one. Commissioned in 1929 to write a symphonic work for the 50th-anniversary of the Boston Symphony, Prokofiev adapted large portions of his ballet The Prodigal Son into a succinct, 25-minute work. More sinfonietta than symphony (interestingly, a revision of the Opus 5 Sinfonietta was his next project), Symphony No.4 was poorly received at its Boston premiere under Koussevitzky in 1930 – its derivation from the ballet found all too obvious.

There matters rested until 1947 – when, perhaps wishing to provide a triumphal conclusion to a triptych of symphonies begun with numbers 5 and 6 but too ill to create a large-scale work from scratch, Prokofiev extensively recast his Fourth Symphony. At around 40 minutes, the proportions and orchestral impact of the work certainly conformed to Socialist Realist requirements, but Prokofiev’s castigation in the ’Zhdanov Decree’ of 1948 scuppered any likelihood of performance. The revised work was not heard publicly in Russia until a performance by Rozhdestvensky in 1957. The BBC had broadcast a performance under Boult in 1950.

And it was the BBCSO which was on hand for a rare opportunity to hear both versions of the Fourth symphony, under the baton of Britain’s most committed Prokofiev exponent – Sir Edward Downes, who also introduced the concert. Typically, his account of the Opus 47 original was a good deal more heavyweight (though never heavy-handed) and forceful than the ballet origin might suggest. Downes got maximum contrast from the pastoral and heroic elements in the opening movement, and shaped the soulful Andante (did Prokofiev ever write a more easeful, spontaneous melody than here?) with telling pathos. The brief intermezzo was suitably enticing, while the finale breezed through to its brusque finish – as with the first movement, the incisiveness of the ideas offsetting the knowledge that true symphonic development was in short supply.

Downes gave a memorable performance of the Opus 112 revision as part of a complete symphonic cycle for the Prokofiev centenary in 1991. Once again, he demonstrated his understanding in an account that was a good deal more integrated than the music has a right to expect. The grafted-on development in the opening Allegro had a powerful cumulative flow, Prokofiev’s redundant-seeming transitions worked unobtrusively into the overall design. The Andante’s weightier emotion was never allowed to descend into bathos, nor did the ’padded out’ Moderato become flaccid. Downes opted for a dynamic rather than grandiose presentation of the finale, with additional passages subsumed into the onward momentum and the blaring apotheosis on the symphony’s ’new opening theme’ shot through with Shostakovich-like ambivalence. Whether or not the effect as intended in 1947, it held the attention as never before.

Opinion will continue to be divided over whether Prokofiev was right to play it safe first time round, improved matters subsequently, or got it wrong on both occasions. But then, with the magnificent exception of the Sixth, he was not a natural symphonist – and the manner of his failings is in itself a fascinating aspect of his career. Never more so than in the case of the Fourth Symphony – and Edward Downes’s lucid and persuasive rendering of both versions, conducted from memory, far more than an interpretative ’case-study’ will be one of the most valuable contributions to the Prokofiev commemorations (his death in 1953) now unfolding.

  • Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Date to be confirmed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content