performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev
(this is not the studio recording I am familiar with here, but it’s the same ensemble and conductor)
Another one of my favorites, this one. I am compiling a list that will eventually be the subject of a post here, but until that’s all done, it’s kind of piece by piece for now. A few of my other posts marked ‘favorite’ are also part of the plan, but only the symphonies.
Anyway, we’ve done a few pieces of Prokofiev here, one of them quite poorly, and it’s going to be revisited once I get around to that feature. This is his last symphony, completed in 1952, just a year before he died.
The first movement is so Russian. This whole piece is. The opening reminds me (as do snippets and passages elsewhere in the piece) of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, another piece I love.
The strings here are so rich and deep and lush. It’s almost melancholy, but there are two contrasting ideas here. The higher strings are the more sorrowful ones, while the cellos are playing a countermelody that makes the whole thing so beautiful. When the oboe enters, the whole thing takes a playful turn. For a bit. It doesn’t feel as dark. The main theme enters over background motion in the strings. This whole moderato doesn’t much sound like anything out of a “children’s symphony”, but it is beautiful nonetheless, not to mention when horns enter over what has already been building. In this, the layering of textures and movement feels almost
Sibelius-y. About two and a half minutes in, the whole orchestra finally agrees on the mood, and it is the soaring beautiful singing that the horns started. There is still something playful about the way Prokofiev writes this passage that is just so… Him. Something about the way he uses the flutes or something, and it is these flutes that come in playfully (ever heard his Peter and the Wolf?) with a theme that will be quite important for the rest of the piece (it also shows up on glockenspiel and xylophone, which add cute textures throughout this entire piece). It’s pleasant and happy, but almost a bit snarky, if that’s the word I’m looking for. The development section for this symphony sounds almost ballet-like. It’s lyrical and dramatic. I’m on a high speed train at the time of writing this, and it’s rather fitting. It almost feels like flying. It’s kind of thrilling. The piece is full of movement and sweeping gestures and beauty. There are also interestingly placed dissonance sand textures that, again, are typical off Prokofiev, at least to me. This is also one of the only places where I have felt a piano is perfectly at home in a symphony. It punctuates a few nicely important chords from the theme at the beginning and adds a wonderful timbre to their richness. The first movement is over nine minutes long, which isn’t much when compared to the first movement of a Tchaikovsky symphony or the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s second, but it’s around three quarters the length of Prokofiev’s entire first symphony. It doesn’t feel like it though. It’s simple, clean, and beautiful.
The allegretto is a light and bouncy and playful waltzy thing. It’s also wonderful to listen to on the train. It’s light and friendly. The double reeds carry a beautiful theme and the strings play and interact with them wonderfully. It’s pleasant, but not so straight laced that it feels overly proper. There’s just enough raucous in the piece to be exciting and fun, especially a few minutes after the intro. We get booming percussion and low voices and it’s a blast. These two ideas work back and forth a while, and it’s the triplet meter here that really gives the piece its life. There are interesting rhythms here that keep the listener interested, and this feels much more like a children’s symphony. I almost envision very classy, well-dressed circus animals doing their waltz or something. If that makes sense. It feels I like the orchestra is dancing, too, in a sense, as the melodies are passed back and forth throughout the sections. Everyone has their turn, and they all do it a bit differently. It finishes energetically.
This brings us to the noticeably quieter andante espressivo. It, too, is clean and simple and gorgeous, recalling some of the texture of the first movement. This is indeed the slow movement of the the symphony, but it is not entirely devoid of interesting lively expression. It has a cute middle passage that’s bouncy and bright. I appreciate how the piano is used meaningfully throughout the piece. It holds its place here as the heartbeat of a few passages. The harp also shows up to create a beautiful flowing texture behind moving strings toward the end of the movement. JUST before the end of this movement, I am almost positive I hear a direct quote from Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, in the first movement. In this movement, it’s just before the end where the whole body of strings all come in at once, and the entire chord progression seems to suggest Rachmaninoff. And then it’s gone and the movement is over.
And then we’re back to a serious kind of energy in the vivace. Hold on. This is truly the most playful of all four movements, and it is an absolute joy to listen to. It’s recalls the light, neoclassical fun air that was present in his first symphony
. Lots of movement and texture and personality here. It’s almost a bit frenetic, just bordering on chaos, but not in any dissonant, frightening kind of way. It’s extremely playful. The middle section almost falls into step as a march. There’s a snare and everything, and it sounds celebratory and fanfare-y. More piano. It’s like if Sousa were born in Russia and wrote a ballet. The harp does its thing with texture again, with lots of glissando here and there. Again, there’s a lot going on in this movement, but it doesn’t feel heavy or disorganized or confusing. It’s all very manageable to listen to. The first movement is quoted here, and the piece finishes quietly and serenely, with the same tinkling percussion from the first movement.
But it wasn’t supposed to. Well, it was supposed to, but it didn’t originally. Remember this was Russia. By this time, Prokofiev was destitute, due to many of the same reasons that Shostakovich had his issues in the previous post on his fifth symphony
, “official disapproval”. He did what any respectable, talented artist does (who desperately needs money), and added an energetic, enthusiastic coda to the end of the fourth movement in order to win the Stalin prize, which landed him 100,000 rubles. The symphony was published a year before his death, and four years after he died, it also won the Lenin prize. He (smartly) confided in Mstislav Rostropovich, saying:
‘But Slava, you will live much longer than I, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.’
What a great gesture, to entrust the enduringness, the legacy of your art to a friend in order to complete, as it were, the work as you envisioned it after it had achieved one of its goals along the way. The coda is actually very short. It is not included in the above recording (or in most other recordings, it seems), and is made of a theme we already know and then a few exciting little afterthoughts before it abruptly ends. I like the quieter bit better.
The piece was called the children’s symphony because of its simpler, pared down style, and because of the fact that it premiered (interestingly) as part of a radio show for children. Otherwise, I don’t see much in the piece as a whole that is indicative of children. Parts of it are quite melancholy, not sad, but reflective and mature rather than purely playful and innocently fun.
I also rather feel that this is Prokofiev, somehow, at his purest, at least in his old age (and mature). That’s not to say that the dissonance and conflict and struggle present in the second piano concerto, the war sonatas or his middle symphonies wasn’t genuine; of course it was. But it sounds to me in this symphony that Prokofiev is returning to something, as if he’d worked most of that frustration out of his system and had kind of worked through it and was back to a more mature, less sarcastic mentality as that which produced his first symphony. Either that or he had just given up on ideas of reform and change. I’m not sure. I’m no Prokofiev scholar and have very little information on his life or timeline of events, but I feel there’s something unique in this piece connecting it to his earlier works, something clean and pure, with a similar voice to his entire oeuvre, but distinct from it as well. The man was a genius, and I feel in his control of the orchestra and wringing the sounds and textures out of it that he wanted, I think of Ravel. The sounds they wanted were different, but there is such a richness and command and personality to his works, and this piece is no different. If the first symphony is too contrived and sarcastic or jocular, and his later works are too dissonant or angry, then maybe one should start with this, his last symphony, to enjoy a pure (or at least maybe more straightforward) expression of this man’s genius.