Sergei Prokofiev: symphony no. 4 (op. 47)

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev (I think)

(This piece has been ‘revisited’ since I felt the article below to be inadequate. The updated articles are here here for the original op. 47 , and here for the revised op. 112.)

It’s Prokofiev. The recording I have happens to be the earlier, unrevised version; that’s the only reason I chose this one. I may address op. 112 separately.

The first movement is generally “eroico” in nature, heavy and big, but also kind of menacing in places. The second theme is contrastingly lyrical and nice, and the middle section is chatty and busy. It does sound distinctly Prokofiev-ish, at least to my ear. The ironic, dissonant qualities of his music seem to be noticeable, even if I couldn’t tell you where or why or how. It’s harder to notice when it’s put in context. Like a lot of Scriabin’s music: really unstable dissonant sounds that, if played as lonely chords would sound awful, but he weaves a tapestry in which they seem entirely at home. I digress.

After the chatty passage with the snare drum, there’s a nice triple meter passage (6/8, I assume, but who knows), but it gets right back to the heroic/militant/dramatic/ominous feel. Also, there is piano here, and I don’t know why that still annoys me so. It chimes in here and there, just enough to feel out of place. The first movement ends in a very tight, energetic frenzy, and there is some repose with the beginning beauty of the second movement.

There’s lots of little sections to this movement. Flute, strings, oboe, bassoon, kind of culminating in a rich stringy contrapuntal (sounding?) bit. There’s a clarinet added to the mix, with horns in the background.

The piano enters with pizzicato strings for an entirely different section that starts to sound playful but ominous. As this tension builds, there’s a piano (which has a far more prominent part here) or bass entry that sounds like an alarmingly deep, crisp human voice “bomp-bomp”ing in the background. Lots of texture and contrasting emotions in this movement. I think that weird texture human voice sounding bit is marcato basses. The middle gets stormier and heavier with timpani before this mellows out a tiny bit and the original flute theme (sort of) returns, but sounding different now. I can’t grasp the structure of this piece. It seems to be some kind of very complicated ternary form, but I can’t quite sort it all out. It peaks beautifully and the flute returns briefly to close the movement with a piano chord.

Bassoon and oboe begin the this movement with piano. It feels jocular and fun and typically Prokofiev (his name needs an adjective form… Prokofian? Prokofievian is way too long. Prokian?). The third movement does sound far more ballet-ish, and it’s a kind of jaunty scherzo/trio. Almost mischievous? Contrabassoon jumps in at the end of the third movement and sounds cool. The movement ends with an exhalation from piano, and the fourth begins with chords in piano and pizzicato strings.

The fourth movement builds with sixteenth note figures (in cello) before getting heavy, clumsy and almost frightening. There’s lots of motion in strings and muted trumpets (I think), really everywhere.

After lots of only vaguely related sections and some key changes, it grows to huge proportions and finishes loudly.

As ever, I enjoy Prokofiev’s textures and orchestration, pairing and use of different timbres for truly unique sounds. I liked each individual section (not just movement, but each individual section or passage in each movement) in this piece, but it felt far less like a symphony and more like a suite or collection of reworked but only tenuously related ideas.

Much of the material came from one of his ballets, and maybe I’m not familiar enough with the piece, but this seems to affect the continuity such that it doesn’t feel like one united harmonious piece. If I got familiar with it on a much deeper level or knew the ballet, maybe I would feel different. Some of the critics could be excused for claiming that he was running out of ideas or lacked creativity and resorted to recycling. Although I am not familiar with the ballet at all, I can say I’m not terribly fond of the idea of reusing material from another piece to that extent. It almost feels like plagiarizing, even when done as subtly as Mozart and one of his many operas or symphonies.

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