United Kingdom Prokofiev: Steven Osborne (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.1.2012 (Gdn)
Prokofiev: Symphonic Song Op.57
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.5
Prokofiev: Symphony No.6 in E flat minor
Some are of the opinion that the neglected works of famous composers remain so for good reason. Vladimir Jurowski has other ideas. The programme he has drawn up for this short Prokofiev festival is astonishing for the fact that almost every work in the eight or so concerts dedicated to the composer is a real rarity. Jurowski’s logic is impeccable. Prokofiev lived an interesting life in interesting times, and the works of his that are famous often owe their prestige to the events that inspired them. That leaves some big gaps in the biography, however, gaps that these lesser-known works help to address.
If Prokofiev’s later works tend to be neglected, the main reason must surely be their air of Soviet propaganda. But then, many earlier works are unfairly neglected too, and the overt Modernism of Prokofiev’s 1920s Paris period can be just as off-putting as his more politically suspect later offerings. The programme this evening demonstrated just how complicated the situation in fact is. The two works in the first half, the Symphonic Song Op.57 and the Fifth Piano Concerto, are both transitional. Both were written in the early 1930s, before Prokofiev had returned to the Soviet Union for good. But he was already preparing to do so and was writing music that he hoped would ingratiate him with the Russian people and the Soviet authorities alike.
Symphonic Song is musically flawed but is well worth hearing for the stylistic transition that the composer is attempting to affect. He is moving away from the fashionable Parisian Modernism that had occupied him for the previous decade and trying to align himself instead with the recent ‘developments’ further East. However, the Modernism, particularly in the form of harsh, brass-led dissonance, refuses to go away. That may be why the structure of the work is so confused – one is never quite sure what sort of narrative and what level of resolution the music is aiming for.
Jurowski presented the piece warts and all, and made no concessions to its problematic orchestration and form. That was a shame; with a little more patience and understanding from the podium it could have worked much better. The orchestral tuttis tend to be quite muddy, but there is obviously some interesting chord voicing going on here. Some small adjustments to the balance might have made Prokofiev’s intentions clearer. Similarly, the transitions between disparate sections cried out for a more theatrical approach, for the new tempos and textures to be announced rather than just begun. But a better piece of music, even a better piece from Prokofiev, would have done all this without interpretive help, so blame should be laid squarely at the door of the composer.
The Fifth Piano Concerto is another curiosity. It works better, perhaps because of Prokofiev’s ability always to write interesting music when it is for the piano. Steven Osborne is a game soloist, and a brave one to take on this rarity. He has real flair for Prokofiev’s fireworks, for the glissandi and the fast staccato passages where every chord is huge but momentary. Osborne, like Jurowski, presents the music clearly and energetically, and never imposes excessive sentiment. Balance between the piano and orchestra was a slight problem, with Prokofiev often writing heavier orchestral accompaniments than the solo line can justify. But Jurowski had obviously put a lot of thought into addressing the problem. The string section was reduced, and woodwind soloists disappeared into the texture as soon as they were finished. A louder pianist would have helped, but would a louder pianist have given us the poised, insightful interpretation we got from Steven Osborne?
The excellent programme note (by Simon Morrison) mentions that Prokofiev often structured his music around the narrative ‘darkness-conflict-achievement’, raising the intriguing possibility that Jurowski had organised the concert’s programme around a similar sequence. Certainly, of the three works, the symphony in the second half constituted the ‘achievement’. For those, like me, who struggle to see any value in the music of Prokofiev’s later years, the Sixth Symphony is a wakeup call. The composer’s mastery, both of orchestration and of large-scale symphonic form, is evident throughout. And the orchestra was on top form, with the brass and percussion putting in particularly visceral performances. Jurowski articulated the shape and drama of the work with efficiency and passion. It might have been nice if he had done something to make the final chords sound less melodramatic, but as he had already demonstrated in the first half, he isn’t in the business of making excuses for Prokofiev’s music.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can hear it here until 25 January