Monday, 11 May 2020

Thoughts and Reviews of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky

Sergei Prokofiev, Suites from the Gambler & The Tale of the Stone Flower. Lahti Symphony Orchestra, c. Dima Slobodeniouk. BIS

Symphonies 3 & 6. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, c. Pietari Inkinen. SWR Music



Imagine that, as a composer, your next composition could be judged by the authorities as inappropriate for the public and that the result of this would be your removal, imprisonment or even execution. 'The Terror' was the name for these circumstances under the Soviet dictator, Stalin.

Then, the two composers at the pinnacle of Soviet era music were Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. Prokofiev was the more cosmopolitan and of the two and spent enough time in exile, in Paris and New York, to imbibe the atmosphere and compositional styles of the first half of the twentieth century. Later, Prokofiev was to return to Russia at which point his passport was never returned to him.

He was the great painter of portraits, musically and psychologically speaking, those of the portraits he 'painted' being right in your face. Don't expect soothing music when coming to Prokofiev for the first time, but do expect brilliant percussion, brass and rhythmic thrills. Then, out of the orchestral mayhem will emerge Prokofiev's lyrical beauty, the ballet Tale of the Stone Flower giving full vent to this side of his character.

In 1915, before The Terror was an issue for Russians, Prokofiev composed The Gambler, an opera based on the characters of Dostoevsky's novel of the same name. This suite of music from the opera is four portraits of its characters, the composer's expression unfettered. By the time we arrive at his sixth symphony after the conclusion of World War II, his character, personality and body had been worn down by age and the constant threat of humiliation and removal if he, like others, did not tow the party dictation. Music should be accessible for the masses and should not involve the modernist tendancy towards dissonance, described as 'formalistic'. When the sixth was premiered, all seemed to be fine. A few weeks later, in January 1948, Prokofiev, along with others, including Shostakovitch, were humiliated and denounced for formalistic tendencies and performances of this great symphony were silenced.

Listen to it - any uncomfortable dissonance is hard to find. Key centres that are hard to pin down, yes, but dissonance? Right at the end, a most spectacularly defiant dissonant chord resolves, dissolves, into the final chord - a bright, optimistic D major.

Stalin's and Prokofiev's funerals were on the same day, 9th March, 1953. Prokofiev's coffin was carried through Moscow's streets, its barers struggling against the tide of people moving in the opposite direction towards the funeral of his aweful nemesis.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, All-Night Vigil; Sacred Choral Works. Latvian Radio Choir, c. Sigvards Klava

And now, music to soothe a troubled mind, The All-Night Vigil was described by Tchaikovsky as 'An essay in harmonisation of liturgical chants'. That sounds academic; the result is not. A significant clue to give insight into what lies behind this spiritual music is in the composer's attitude to religion. He loved to be in a church, loved the poetic forms of expression that religion spawned, but had no sympathy for its dogma. He wrote to a friend, 'I, like you, have come to believe that if there is a future life, it is only in the sense that matter is preserved, and that in a pantheistic view of the eternity of nature I am merely one microscopic phenomenon.'

The music is harmonically satisfying and follows the various styles of practice in the Russian Orthodox Church which the composer studied carefully, adding, subtly, harmonic movement of his own.

In the above mentioned correspondence, Tchaikovsky speaks of standing in the shadows of some ancient little church filled with the smoke of incense, meditating deep into himself and searching for the answers to eternal questions, then awoken from thoughfulness when the choir sings, "Since my youth many passions have made war against me."

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