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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Two Moods for Symphony Seven

Sergei Prokofiev
I WORKED FOR A classical-music radio station for two years in the early 1980s, a time when Reagan-era politics eagerly vilified all things Russian. Which meant that each burp of trouble would inspire a certain class of numbskull listener to call to complain when I aired a work by a Russian composer.

Never mind that the works played either predated the Soviet regime (Rimsky-Korsakoff, Tchaikovsky, and the like) or came from the pen of that regime’s victims (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, et. al.). The mere fact that anyone involved should have set foot in the USSR’s variable borders was indictment enough.

Stravinsky got out before the Revolution. Vladimir Dukelsky escaped with his family shortly thereafter, and made an American success as Vernon Duke. Shostakovich stayed and suffered for it. Prokofiev got out in 1918 and lived and worked in Europe and the USA for the next eighteen years. Then he returned to his native country to stay, a move that has inspired endless controversy.

Could he not see the terrible conditions to which he was returning? Probably not. It wasn’t until he’d resettled that the Soviet Composers’ Union was formed, with stringent but highly subjective dictates about what kind of music could (and could not) be written.

Prokofiev responded with some obviously written-to-order stuff, like a cantata celebrating Stalin, but other works from the period are believed at least to hint at the resentment he felt at being so yoked. Works like the Symphony No. 5 and the ballet Cinderella get a pass because they were written during wartime, when the Soviet Union was more distracted.

But once the 1950s dawned, when Prokofiev was ill and restricted from working for too many hours a day, the works he produced are often criticized as being too simplistic, too eager to please the censors. And that’s where his Symphony No. 7, his last such work, comes in.

It’s dismissed by Prokofiev biographer Harlow Robinson, whose 1987 text predictably scowls at the later works. “It is not difficult,” writes Robinson, “to agree with the assessment of Olin Downes, who wrote that the work represents ‘a retrogression and not a step forward.’ The Seventh is an old man’s symphony, beyond strife and conflict.”

Actually, it’s easy not to agree with Downes and Robinson, whose condemnations of “simplicity” are obviously politically charged, and as nasty a tool in the West as were censorship and persecution in the East

Composed in 1951-52, the symphony was intended, said Prokofiev, for children, and debuted on a so-targeted radio broadcast. It’s in a traditional four-movement form and runs about half an hour. It’s capriciously melodic, but with moody underpinnings to its outer movements. Most controversially, it has two endings.

The original version picks up a somber theme from the first movement and spins it into a colorful wash of orchestral color, with a clocklike figure bringing it to a quiet finish. Prokofiev was urged to add a more upbeat coda, according to an account cellist (and close friend) Mstislav Rostropovich told Prokofiev biographer Daniel Jaffé. The new ending enabled the cash-poor composer to win a lucrative Stalin Prize.

But, according to Jaffé, Prokofiev insisted to Rostropovich that the new ending thereafter be dropped. In his 1988 recording with French National Orchestra, Rostropovich obligingly ends on the melancholy note. Otherwise, as far as recordings go, it seems to be split down the middle.

Those who recorded it without the lively coda include Vladimir Ashkenazy (Cleveland Orchestra), Valery Gergiev (London Symphony), Seiji Ozawa (Berlin Philharmonic), and Klaus Tennstedt (Bavarian Radio Symphony).

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s second recording of the work, with the Moscow Radio Symphony, omits the tag, but his earlier version with the impressively named  USSR Ministry of Culture State Symphony Orchestra includes it.

Other inclusionists include Neeme Järvi (Scottish National Orchestra), Zdeněk Košler (Czech Philharmonic), Theodore Kuchar (Ukraine National Symphony), Nikolai Malko (Philharmonia Orchestra, 1955), Jean Martinon (Radio France Orchestra), and Walter Weller (London Symphony).

Not too many works are out there with multiple endings. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 was supposed to finish with a mighty fugue, but that composer’s publisher urged him to write something simpler. Most recordings include both alternatives, so you can program your player accordingly.

Schubert’s Trio No. 2 in E-Flat had a bunch of stuff cut from its final movement, and a restored version has made its way into performances and recordings. It makes a very long piece much longer, but it’s fascinating to hear the composer’s original thoughts on the matter.

The Prokofiev ending is a tag about fifteen seconds long, but it very much changes the mood you take away from the piece. I enjoy having the choice, and suit my own mood accordingly.

Here’s Rozhdestvensky’s tag-free version, with the Moscow Radio Symphony. Take the time to listen to the whole movement to hear how it plays out:

If you’re in a hurry, you can skip to the last minute or so of this version, but you’ll miss seeing these players in action.  Jan Kučera conducts the Prague Radio Symphony, and this one finishes with lively footnote. Which do you prefer?

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