Prokofiev Symphony no. 3 in Cm, op. 44

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa, or below by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev

(cover image by Ian Baldwin)

Next is the third symphonies of both composers, and again, Prokofiev comes out in a much better position than does Shostakovich, I think, but we’ll get there.

As we discussed last week, most of Prokofiev’s symphonies, at least in my mind, have labels: the first is obviously the ‘Classical’ symphony; the second is the complicated one, the fourth the one that was written twice. His fifth is the most famous… but what about the third?

It’s the ‘fiery angel‘.

It was written in 1928, and is strongly connected to the composer’s opera The Fiery Angel, which was originally to be performed in the 1927-28 season by the Berlin State Opera with Bruno Walter, but that never came to pass, and was ultimately never staged in the composer’s lifetime.

He’d worked quite hard on it, though, as I suppose most people do on their operas, so he understandably didn’t want to let it go to waste. He was able to hear Koussevitzky (the man who seriously was everywhere during this time) conduct a concert version of the second act, and decided to draw from it for his third symphony, in much the same way he would with his ballet The Prodigal Son and the fourth symphony).

The work was dedicated to Nikolai Myaskovsky and premiered on May 17, 1929 with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under Pierre Monteux. It is in four movements, as follows, and has a duration of a little over a half hour:

  1. Moderato
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro agitato — Allegretto
  4. Andante mosso — Allegro moderato

I wonder if the composer’s decision to compose his third and fourth symphonies from other works was purely related to circumstance, or if he was still a bit apprehensive after the less than positive response to his second symphony. I suspect it may be at least a little of both.

It should be noted, though, that this is not a concert setting of the content from the opera; it’s not a suite or a replacement, or recycling. Wiki says that “the material is developed symphonically; the symphony is therefore absolute rather than programmatic.” That’s good news for those of us who know nothing of the original opera. We don’t need to.

The outer movements of this work to me are the most memorable, although all four are of awesome power. The first movement, marked with a deceptively simple ‘moderato,’ is incendiary from the get-go, eyebrow-singeing with a grating, roaring full-orchestra clash, tolling bells and all, but despite the assured, commanding nature of this rattling start, the first theme comes shortly thereafter. The glowing embers of that opening remain, though, and the two main subjects here, the first unmistakably Russian, at times akin to Rachmaninoff, or perhaps more Scriabin, is still undeniably, unmistakably Prokofiev in its intense color and passion.

These opening two themes are so wildly different from the cataclysmic opening, but that flame hasn’t gone anywhere, as the development shows. As Thomas May points out at the San Francisco Symphony, the two main themes of this sonata-form movement, as well as content from the development section, have their roots in the motifs of the opera. That third theme, which May describes as having ” jerky rhythms and triplets that evoke Renata’s eerie agitation” (Renata being from the opera), is iconically Prokofiev in nature, but after all of this content, a very theatrical, substantial symphonic movement, we end in a “hellish silence.”

The subsequent movements are give or take half of the length of the first movement, and next comes the andante. If you were ever so wildly mistaken as to think the composer was all bombast, then the opening of the slow will change your mind. May says that “Renata’s quest for peace of mind in the convent, portrayed in the prelude to the opera’s final act, is the source of the contemplative string chorale that opens the Andante.” The strings are soft and tender, glimmering and warm as they support the flute line.

I have no basis for saying this except for what I feel like I hear, but there appear to be the faintest of connections to the introductory fireball passage of the first movement, as well as to something that comes in the following movement, in the form of razor-sharp, nearly grating glissandos. Overall, though, despite a magical but still somewhat unsettling and slithery atmosphere, this is some of the most docile music of anything we’ll see in this work.

The scherzo is longer than either of the movements that bookend it, and the ‘agitato’ is palpable. Do you hear the horror-film, Hitchcock-like (I know Prokofiev came first) screeches of glissandos in the strings? It sounds ghastly, to say nothing of the harrowing opening, and the triplets also sound familiar, don’t they? We do thankfully have some respite in the trio section, “wistful and anxious at the same time.” It offsets the now almost unnerving nature of the scherzo, which returns in a diseased, sickening way to break up what was actually almost comforting.

The finale takes the same kind of fiery intensity of the opening of the first movement, but instead of burning itself out in one giant flash, builds and roars, equally as hot, but more heavily than the first movement did. There seems to be a menacing triplet figure everywhere throughout this symphony, and it sounds almost as if Shostakovich has come to visit. It seems at times that there are two different ideas going on at once, one in the strings, another in the brass, vying for the upper hand, and entirely out of step with each other. Nearly this entire movement, the shortest of the symphony in Ozawa’s searing reading, is positively cataclysmic, but we do get some injured, delicate moments to breathe, led by double reeds, for example.

The mighty growl that ends this piece may leave you heaving a sigh of relief when the whole thing is over. You may not be terribly fond of the work overall, and I’m not saying it’s one of the greatest symphonies ever written, but it is a vivid, actually quite straightforward work that flexes its muscles and bares its teeth.

All of those words, though, the intensity and weight and all of that having been said, it’s still a very different work, in atmosphere, aesthetic, personality, than, say, some of Shostakovich’s later, famous, hard-hitting symphonies. This one is through-and-through a theatrical piece, even if it is also very clearly symphonic. You’ll notice in the analyses that mention it that the excerpts from the opera do not appear in the same narrative order. They don’t need to.

Have a breather, take a break, and we’ll see you for Shostakovich’s third on Thursday. Stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.

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