A Distinguished End to the London Philharmonic’s Prokofiev Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prokofiev: Janine Jansen (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.2.2012 (MB)

Symphony no.1 in D major, op.25, ‘Classical’
Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Symphony no.5 in B-flat major, op.100

I have not been able to attend as many of the London Philharmonic’s Prokofiev concerts as I should have liked; indeed, I have only been to the first and the last. Whilst the former offered somewhat mixed results, the festival finale proved an unalloyed success. Returning to mainstream repertoire did not engender routine, quite the contrary: it enabled us rather to discriminate between ‘interesting’ Prokofiev, fully worthy of performance, and the composer at his best, which we heard this evening.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin showed in his performance of the Classical Symphony that he is a conductor fully capable of shedding new light on a work that in some hands can sound unduly familiar. A slower tempo than one usually hears in the first movement imparted a true sense of the neo-Classical to proceedings, whilst the gracious charm of a clucking second subject suggested Haydn of Beecham vintage (not inappropriate at all, either to work or indeed orchestra). What a refreshing change from the mere showpiece into which this music can all too often degenerate. Notably, Prokofiev’s motor rhythm persisted throughout: this, we knew, was neo-Classicism. The second movement captured splendidly a stylised grace, not frigid, but somewhat akin to the ‘as if’ of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, albeit in miniature and with the nagging, intriguing question, which certainly never arises in Mahler’s case, as to whether there is in fact a heart beating behind the music. Silvery violin lines suggested there might be, as if premonitions of Cinderella; or were they too dealing with masks? The minuet brought a winning sense of toy-soldier swagger, again at a slower tempo than is often heard and all the more interesting for it. There was, though, nothing slow about the finale; it fizzed carelessly – in the best sense – like a young sparkling wine. It needs excellent playing and received it: from the flutes especially, but also from the LPO string section as a whole.

Janine Jansen joined the orchestra for the Second Violin Concerto. Having had a few unhappy experiences with this work in concert of late (the worst of which were two truly dreadful performances from Viktoria Mullova and Chloe Hanslip), it was a true joy to welcome a violinist who not only brought flawless technique but also musical understanding to the piece. It opened darker than often, a little more deliberate in pace, though tempi would prove to be flexible. The violin line was beautifully spun, yet never narcissistically so. (Much as I enjoy Itzhak Perlman in this concerto, Jansen was more interesting, suggesting that more was at stake.) The most challenging passages in technical terms were handled without difficulty but, more to the point, they sounded angry rather than merely virtuosic. It was a fine collaboration, too, the orchestra often sounding very much as the shadow of the soloist. At times, it sounded ‘Russian’ – for instance, properly soulful cellos – and at times more internationally ‘modernist’, penetrating to the heart of a conflict that pervaded not only Prokofiev’s music but his character too. There was pent-up aggression rather than balletic charm to the final pizzicato chords. The slow movement brought a piquant contrast between the soaring intensity of Jansen’s solo line and the spiky LPO woodwind. That shadow was also present again from vibrato-laden violins. And later, there was splendid fairy-tale grotesquerie, not over-done, from the cellos. Some might have wanted more primary colours in this movement; I heartily approved of its subtlety of tone. The finale bit, but it also danced, if haltingly – a little like Prokofiev himself, if the tales be true. (Well, actually a great deal better than the notoriously poor ballroom dancer: interesting for a great ballet composer!) Jansen combined pinpoint precision with truth of expression. There remained, rightly, a relative, sometimes melancholy hollowness to the some of the orchestral writing. Nézet-Séguin left us wondering whether that was in itself a deeper, expressive truth, or whether we were dealing with Straussian masks.

The Fifth Symphony received an equally fine performance, if anything finer still. Nézet-Séguin again showed that he was not hidebound by tradition, taking the opening Andante at a more flowing speed – and character – than, say, Karajan’s classic, stentorian account from the 1970s with the Berlin Philharmonic. Not that that precluded orchestral weight, even if a little distance from that of the BPO; yet whereas Karajan presented Prokofiev as closer to Shostakovich – at least if Shostakovich had been a considerably better composer – then here perhaps we heard Prokofiev echoing Mussorgsky and indeed even Ravel, whilst nevertheless remaining recognisably the same composer. There were also, here and elsewhere, hints and often more than hints of Eisenstein cinema: both ‘dramatic’ and, in its way, ‘modernist’. Moreover, Nézet-Séguin’s reading proceeded with a definite spring in its step. If Karajan was utterly, chillingly, single-minded, Nézet-Séguin tended more towards variegation. It is not the only way, but it was a fully coherent way to open quite the best live performance of this symphony I have heard. There was no moderation to the second movement either: a biting scherzo that yet retained an apt sleekness, still pointing back – if only just – to the Prokofiev of the Twenties, albeit with considerably greater seriousness of purpose. What was perhaps most impressive of all, a highly catchy sense of swing notwithstanding, was Nézet-Séguin’s unbroken sense of line: this, we were never able to forget, is a symphony. The third movement brought a sense of germination, almost blooming, in a frozen (tundra?) landscape. It may be a far simpler – and, more importantly, entirely different – beast from The Rite of Spring, but in that respect, there proved perhaps a surprising degree of commonality. Nézet-Séguin retained, moreover, a quite contrasting sense of epic cinema, a difficult balancing act to bring off. The climax brought the Soviet machine to its most glorious – and chilling. We heard, in the opening of the final movement, Prokofiev’s ultimately unsuccessful striving towards Beethoven, and there was poignancy in that striving. A sardonic response was called for, and received, similarly a proper sense of melodic grace. And still, at times, the Prokofiev of Le Pas d’acier revealed himself, fleetingly. Let us not be seduced into simplistic Cold War narratives – from either/any side. Frankly, someone who does not hear any shred of ‘socialist realism’ undercut by the late turn to mechanistic solo instruments cannot be listening. We heard it and were chilled by it: not in a Mahlerian way, which would be absurd for Prokofiev – but in whatever elusive fashion it may be that forms the foundation for his essential voice.


Mark Berry