Revisit: Prokofiev Symphony no. 4, op. 112

performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev


movement 2

movement 3

movement 4

So we’re back… for the same symphony, just eighteen years later, as in, after his fifth and sixth symphonies, but we’re going to address the real revisit (I originally touched on the op. 112 when I wrote about this work in the first place) and talk about the substantial additions to the symphony.

And that’s really what it is. For many people, maybe the word ‘revision’ conjures up ideas of shuffling through liner notes or Wikipedia articles trying to find which conductor recorded which version of which Bruckner symphony, or which edition you’re listening to.

This is not really that situation. Rather than revisions or excisions, the greatest noticeable difference is the op. 112’s length. In Gergiev’s two recordings, the op. 112 is a full 14 minutes (or more than 50%) longer than the op. 47. This is the first thing. About this undertaking, Wikipedia says:

In early 1947, Prokofiev was presented with the idea of revising his Symphony No. 4 Op. 47. The idea appealed to him for several reasons. First, the original version had never had much success (especially in the Soviet Union), but Prokofiev believed that the material had great potential. Second, he had just had great success with his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, and he hoped to reshape No. 4 in its image.

This was after he’d been welcomed back to the Soviet Union with promises of freedom and privilege, only to be sanctioned by the Zhdanov decree (or something similar) in 1946. The article does not say who made the suggestion, but he took a liking to it, and added more than just content. E-flat clarinet, piano, some percussion, and harp were added to the work. Wikipedia makes mention of the ideals of Socialist Realism which showed up in the fifth symphony, and says that some of that concept of heroism and heft make up the additions to the new version we’ll talk about today.

Notably, the revised work was not performed in the Soviet Union until after the composer’s death due to bans on his works, but saw the light of day for the first time in 1950 under Adrian Boult, and in America in 1957, the same year it earned a premiere in the Soviet Union. Wikipedia quotes Robert Cummings as stating:

Opinion among musicologists and critics has tended to favor the earlier work, but conductors have shown a marked preference for the expanded version in the both the concert hall and recording studio.

… and then corroborates this with the statistic that recordings of the op. 112 are (or were) far more abundant than the op. 47.

Again in four movements, but this time around 36 minutes.

I’ll say to start that one of the reasons I liked the op. 47 version was because of its smallness, lightness, and charm, almost very modernly neoclassical (not as extreme as his first symphony, for sure, but still in the same manner). Wikipedia’s description of the first movement tells us much about what’s changed in this iteration of the work:

In this revised first movement, the augmentation of the original material doubles the length of the movement. The orchestration of this movement is also thicker than the original, and more closely resembles the orchestration of Prokofiev’s Fifth and Sixth.

The op. 112 begins with an introduction that at a few points almost feels almost jazzy (just a few interesting chord progressions) and then familiar material turns up. The heftier orchestration and use of piano make it feel more modern and less neoclassical; everything is spread out, given more room to develop and breathe. That busy, mechanical running train subject does show up, but much later, and it’s not as light and playful.

The second movement is largely the same, but also about double the length of the original, and instead of developing the content, exploring it more, it’s essentially just a bit more repetitive. This movement needed to fit the larger, more epic vision that the revision was aiming for, so there’s not really any new content here, it seems, only restatement of existing stuff to build out the movement. It’s nice enough, but not very different.

The scherzo is the movement with perhaps the biggest change. The content at first kind of hinted at or suggested in an introduction before it’s developed the same way it was in the original version, but the context is different. It’s not just a light, playful or even mischievous thing. There’s a seriousness that the movement takes on later, adding a change of mood, some depth that the original didn’t have, making the playfulness seem perhaps almost satirical or dark. The movement ends with a quiet ascent of a few notes on the piano, and rather leaves me asking “wait, what just happened?”

The final movement is the only one where anything (I think) was removed. The finale is no longer in any kind of sonata form, so after a lengthy-ish, heavy introduction (like being played at half-speed), we get the first theme but no second theme that we had in the op. 47. Wikipedia describes it as “a series of thematic areas that are developed somewhat chaotically, followed by a triumphant apotheosis.” It’s quite menacing, and while it feels familiar, it’s in different colors, a different atmosphere. There’s some real uncertainty, tension in the movement as it and the entire piece reach their end, and it’s ultimately, if not somewhat ambiguously, triumphant.

The problem I have with this revision is that it’s far enough away from the original light, neoclassical-style work as to lose the delicate charm that the op. 47 had, but I feel not committed to or completely big and epic and grand enough to be successful as its own standalone expansive work.

While I am not in love with even the first version of the fourth, I did enjoy listening to it, but it is largely an unmemorable piece, to me, easily overshadowed by his first, fifth, seventh, and many of his other works besides symphonies. The revisions and additions to the work to make it fit a largely political mold removed from the the work the things I felt made it most effective and powerful, so I would be in agreement with the “musicologists and critics” mentioned above who favor the earlier version, but it is an interesting project to see how experience and political climate and even personal motives can change a composer’s perception of a work.

That’s all for revisits for this year, and we only have one more piece to go before we are finished with 2015! I can’t believe it. But I’ve got next year planned out until about summer, at least (strongly) tentatively. In any case, see you tomorrow for our final installment of the Russian Symphony Series!

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