An Orchestral Prokofiev For All Seasons – Not Just Christmas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev: David Kempster (baritone), Gabriele Leporatti (piano), Côr Heol y March, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 12.12.2016. (PCG)

Prokofiev – Winter Bonfire; The Love for Three Oranges: Suite; Piano Concerto No.1; Lieutenant Kijé: Suite

This concert was originally advertised under the title “Søndergård at Christmas”, but apart from the Christmas associations of the Sleigh ride from Lieutenant Kijé none of the music by Prokofiev had any connection to the festivities, and indeed the title was dropped from the programme. Nonetheless, the presence of a selection of carols sung by the choir and the general nature of the music we heard did have a generally jolly and festive atmosphere. And none of the Prokofiev works, common enough on CD and radio, are often heard in concert and therefore were doubly welcome, with one real rarity as well to add further spice to the mix.

To begin at the end (a very good place to start) with the concert suite from the film Lieutenant Kijé, this was given a sparkling performance from the very beginning, with the dialogue between offstage cornet and onstage piccolo striking just the right sort of absurdist note. And a real sense of occasion was added by the use of a baritone soloist in the two songs that Prokofiev incorporated into his suite, far preferable to the purely orchestral versions that he added to the score as a later alternative but which we more usually hear. The Russian words in the Troika have a rumbustious Mussorgsky-like feel to them that no amount of polished playing from the orchestra can ever replace. The cornet (Philippe Schwarz, I believe) received a solo bow at the end which the piccolo (Eva Stewart) was unaccountably denied; but the enthusiastic audience were more seriously denied any information as to who these players actually were (a subject to which I will return).

The Italian Gabriele Leporatti made a good impression in navigating his way through the torrents of notes (hardly pausing for breath during the course of fifteen minutes) which constitute the single movement of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. He was not helped, however, by either the resonant acoustic of the hall, which blurred his semiquavers in the opening passage and almost subsumed him into the orchestra, or Prokofiev’s misjudgement in doubling the closing section of the solo part with a glockenspiel, which effectively drowned him out almost completely. This was one of those occasions when those listening to the live broadcast relay on BBC Radio 3 will have gleaned a better impression of his performance than those actually in the hall. One had almost forgotten what an incredibly difficult piece this must be to play; Prokofiev wrote it to display his own talents at the first performances, but the cascades of notes must have taxed even that celebrated composer-performer to the limit.

His opera The Love for Three Oranges was the first commission the young Prokofiev received in the United States following his arrival as a refugee from the Russian Revolution, and although the opera maintains a precarious presence in the repertoire (it positively invites producers to display their more fantastic ideas), one must recognise that the composer extracted most of the best music for inclusion in the six movements of his orchestral suite. None of the characters on stage elicit the slightest sympathy from the audience with their stylised lamentations and assumed hilarity, and any emotional engagement with them is quite impossible to achieve. Nonetheless, the suite has achieved considerable popularity, especially the ubiquitous March from the Second Act; and although one missed the vocal contributions from the second movement – their omission means that the music occasionally hangs fire – the suite deserves to be heard at full length (as here) rather than in the sometimes truncated version of a mere three movements which we sometimes are fobbed off with. Not that any of the movement are precisely lengthy, with a final section which fails to clinch a really convincing climax. The orchestra was really on form here, scintillating and sparkling, powerful and dramatic by turns, with the violins producing a nicely wistful melancholy in the music for The Prince and the Princess. All of these performances will have been heard and enjoyed by live radio audiences on Radio 3, and will be available from the BBC iPlayer for another month.

The first half of the programme was recorded for relay the following day, and began with a real rarity in the shape of Prokofiev’s Soviet-era score Winter Bonfire written for the Russian Pioneers movement (their equivalent of Boy Scouts). The score in its original form, rarely heard since its first performance, was written for narrator and orchestra with an incidental section for children’s choir; here the narration was undertaken by David Kempster in resonant voice, although he was frequently overwhelmed where he was required to deliver text over Prokofiev’s heavy orchestration (another point at which listeners on the radio will have an advantage over those in the hall). In fact his microphone gave out in the opening narration and had to be replaced, which occasioned much amusement from the audience but which listeners at home will have been denied. The narration describes rather earnestly a trip by some urban Pioneers by train into the country, where they are entertained at the titular bonfire by local peasantry (the children’s choir) and visit the pigs at a collective farm before they return to the city. I imagine the original Russian narrative will have been highly didactic and geared to the purposes of propaganda (although it failed to catch the imagination of Stalin or his minions). Here we were given a rather delightfully naïve innocence in an English translation, which was not devoid of moments of real poetry but generally conveyed an atmosphere of slightly ironic detachment. This was apparently the work of American poet Louis Untermeyer, which was being heard for the first time in many years since the current publishers of the score Boosey and Hawkes had completely lost any information on it, and it had to be obtained from a 1951 copy in New York Public Library. This is the sort of story which would have made a fascinating read in the programme, but alas I was only able to obtain the full account from a subsequent e-mail from Callum Thomson, to whom my thanks. I hope that readers will find this information as interesting as I did (and was perhaps the ironic overtone of the translation a factor in the work’s neglect following its first performance?). In any case, I am grateful for the opportunity to hear some severely neglected music by Prokofiev writing in his best popular vein.

Which brings me by a roundabout route back to the subject of the programmes that the BBC are providing in the current season for their concerts at Hoddinott Hall. These are, I am afraid to say, far from satisfactory, consisting as they do of a single sheet of folded A3 paper which has to accommodate programme notes in both English and Welsh. I have previously complained about the lack of texts and translations in these programmes in earlier years (in sharp contrast to the BBC’s well-produced and comprehensive programmes for their concerts in St David’s Hall) but the new style introduced this season robs us even of basic information such as lists of those participating in the performances. Is it too late to ask for a reconsideration of the (admittedly attractive) design?

To return to more pleasant topics, the first half of the programme ended with a short carol concert given by the children’s choir which had participated briefly in Winter Bonfire. Of the six items included, three were carol settings by modern Welsh composers – T Gwynn Jones, Haydn Morris and Gareth Glyn – and here the lack of texts or translations seriously hindered enjoyment of the music. What we were left with was three pleasant settings of unattributed Welsh lyrics very much in the style of Arwel Hughes’s 1938 ‘Tydi y rhoddaist’, with suave choral harmonies riding over surging arpeggios on the piano (Ieuan Jones) and only Gareth Glyn’s ‘Carol y Seren’ adding a slight spice of more modern harmonies. John Rutter’s ‘Angel’s Carol’ sung in Welsh translation (by Glenda Jones) with harp accompaniment (Valerie Aldrich Smith) sounded very much in the same sort of vein; and Britten’s ‘This Little Babe’ from A Ceremony of Carols suffered from the headlong speed adopted by conductor Eleri Roberts (surely the tempo should be governed by the articulation of the harp in the opening bars) which threatened to derail the ensemble in places. The best performance here came in André Caplet’s beautiful unaccompanied setting of the Sanctus (from his Messe à trois voix, although the programme did not tell us this), where the choir surmounted the undoubted difficulties of the impressionist harmonies with transparent and deceptive ease. Their singing was indeed a joy throughout, like the very best children’s Christmas concert you could ever imagine hearing – clear delivery of words, impeccable tuning, emotional engagement and a clarion sense of dynamics. Côr Heol y March have been winning choral competitions for some years now, and deservedly so.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “An Orchestral Prokofiev For All Seasons – Not Just Christmas”

  1. The harp player was BBCNOW’s Val Aldrich Smith, the choir’s director Eleri Roberts, not the other way around as stated!

    • Apologies to both artists and thanks to you for taking the trouble to correct us. This has been amended.


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