Ashkenazy Presents Prokofiev Rarities

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev: Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Crouch End Festival Chorus, students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, students of the Royal Academy of Music, Aidan Oliver (voice of Lenin), Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra /Vladimir Ashkenazy, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18.5.2018. (PCG)

Prokofiev – Autumnal; Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19; Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op.74

This penultimate concert in St David’s Hall’s 2017-2018 ‘international season’ reverted to the theme of the Russian Revolution of 1917, of which the autumn series of concerts had formed a sort of mini-commemoration together with a number of scheduled events with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. And that commemoration certainly went out with a bang, with Prokofiev’s long-suppressed cantata commissioned to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution, but in the event never performed until long after the composer’s death in 1953 – and then only in an expurgated form. When it did finally achieve performance, in 1966, the two movements setting texts by Stalin were omitted, since by that date the dictator’s reputation had been conclusively demolished by the new Soviet leadership. This not only meant that the conclusion of the cantata inevitably had a rather downbeat ending. It also threw greater emphasis onto the more adventurous elements in the score, such as the sixth movement with its supplementary parts for additional brass, imitations of gunfire, sirens wailing, an additional accordion band, and spoken passages for both the chorus and a soloist taking the part of Lenin (over a megaphone). These additional forces, and the reputation the work acquired as a piece of semi-musical theatre, effectively has militated against any frequency of performance over the years; although the restoration of the ‘Stalin’ movements helps to lend the work greater stature, since Prokofiev (no doubt recognising the side on which his bread was buttered) provided his most distinctive thematic music for those segments. Which made it a great pity that so few listeners turned up to hear this work, which we are unlikely to hear again in Cardiff for a good many years, and which – like so much of Prokofiev’s late work – should not be disregarded purely because its political ‘message’ has now so irretrievably dated.

Prokofiev, once he had realised that the cantata was unlikely to be performed, clearly exploited some of his musical ideas for use elsewhere – at places the listener can hear pre-echoes of scores such as Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible and even (in the music for the revolutionary crowds) the death of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. The ever-ebullient Vladimir Ashkenazy clearly relished these sections of the score, and entered with glee into the unleashed full forces ranged across the stage during the more dramatic sections – although the volume of sound which he achieved did not perhaps warrant the almost alarmist ‘health warnings’ which the hall management had fixed to the outer doors as the audience arrived. The composer clearly designed the score for a massive Russian choral sound. Even the combined forces of the Philharmonia Voices and the Crouch End Festival Chorus – nearly 150 names were listed in the programme material – found themselves in difficulty coping with the volume of sound generated from the orchestra, especially when the additional brass players weighed in to ‘support’ the choral sound. Nor did the five-player accordion ensemble from the students of the Royal Academy of Music really provide much counterweight, when set against the seventeen-strong ‘military band’ from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Perhaps the problem lies with the fact that, like so much music that breaks new ground (and Prokofiev certainly does that in parts of this cantata), effects designed to startle the audience lose their shock value as the years pass; but even so we should be extremely grateful for the rare opportunity to experience it as a live event. And it was especially valuable that the audience was provided with four sides of A4 paper supplying a full translation as well as a Russian transliteration of the text, which spared us none of the horrifyingly bathetic verbiage of Stalin’s prose.

The programme had commenced with another Prokofiev rarity, this time from the other end of his career – his ‘orchestral sketch’ Autumnal written in 1910 when the composer was still just in his teens. The mature Prokofiev was quite dismissive of the piece – ‘there wasn’t a note in the whole thing that wasn’t false’ – but it did not stop him revising it in 1915 and yet again in 1934, which clearly implies that he did find some merit in the music after all. Given this history of revision, it is hard to determine at what date individual sections reached their final form; but as an early orchestral work it is clearly superior to such a piece as Stravinsky’s Fireworks written two years before, when that composer was considerably more mature. There is not much evidence in Autumnal of Prokofiev’s own style, but he had clearly learnt from the example of Rimsky-Korsakov (the prelude to Act II of The Golden Cockerel) and Liadov (Kikimora); the central section, where the informative programme note by Joanna Wyld detected the influence of Scriabin, also brought to my mind the Russian-influenced music composed during the following years by Bax and even Respighi. The result was a marvellous discovery, which like the cantata we should hear more often; Ashkenazy himself is responsible for one of the recordings in the current catalogue, but they do not even run into double figures.

We are so accustomed to hearing Prokofiev’s violin concertos delivered as dazzling showpieces that it came almost as a shock when Pekka Kuuisto launched the first movement with little more than a whisper of sound, which left the audience straining to catch the mystery of the sound he was eliciting from the instrument – aided and abetted with a real sense of delicacy by Ashkenazy and the orchestra. The sense of balance was far removed from the normal balance which we experience in live or recorded performances, with the violin part emphasised against the orchestral accompaniment; here the two blended into a unified whole. And this novel approach to the score continued throughout, with even the vivacissimo whirlwind of a scherzo given a sense of fantasy which far transcended mere showmanship. Even the most delicate of Kuuisto’s touches came across with stupendous clarity, and the visible give-and-take between him and the orchestra was a wonder to behold and to hear. Even more magical, if that were possible, was the encore provided (together with a charming spoken introduction) by Kuuisto, his own improvisation on the melody known sometimes in the West as Midnight in Moscow. But the performance of the concerto was a real revelation, and one awaits with anticipation a recording – especially if the balance can be as carefully judged as it was here.

Which brings me back to the matter of the disappointingly small audience. In the past I have expressed some concern about the unwillingness of Cardiff audiences to experiment with pieces beyond the normal repertory – although the BBC seem to manage somewhat better – but it must be dispiriting for performers when there are large expanses of empty seats distributed throughout the auditorium. On the other hand, those who did attend were rightly and wildly enthusiastic, and for myself I was delighted to encounter a work such as the cantata which I do not expect to hear again in the concert hall during my lifetime. The enthusiasm and energy of the veteran Vladimir Ashkenazy, too, is one of the marvels of our musical age. A marvellous evening.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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