Sergei Prokofiev was never far from controversy. From his student days in St. Petersburg and Moscow before World War I until the mid-1920s, he was branded--much to his delight--a soulless savage of the avant-garde.
Critics tended then to divide modernist composers into "primitive" Russians and "effete, over-intellectual" Germans. Simpler times, adjectivally speaking, than our own.
By the mid-1930s, the West had labeled Prokofiev "spent" and/or "conservative" while the Soviets, on his return from nearly two decades of living abroad, were ready to embrace him again as a native son for such patriotic and/or lyrically appealing works as "Lieutenant Kije," "Alexander Nevsky" and the "Romeo and Juliet" ballet score.
But with the infamous 1948 declaration of the Communist Party's Central Committee, Prokofiev, along with Shostakovich and Khachaturian, was chastised for writing "unwholesomely cerebral music" (Khachaturian cerebral?).
Prokofiev, virtually discounted in the West as a creative force by this time, suddenly was performed again, particularly in an America receptive to any news that portrayed the Soviet Union in a negative light.
But he was cheated of the expected international headlines by expiring March 5, 1953, the same day that another prominent Soviet citizen breathed his last: Joseph Stalin. The irony would not have been lost on the composer.
While Prokofiev's name is familiar, his works, with perhaps a half-dozen exceptions are not.
In an effort at redressing this seeming injustice, Britain's Chandos Records has issued the first integral collection of the composer's eight symphonies. Prokofiev's last symphony is numbered "7" but there are two complete and quite dissimilar published versions of the Fourth.
All are performed by the Scottish National Orchestra under its music director, Soviet emigre conductor Neeme Jarvi, who plead Prokofiev's case eloquently, even if they cannot persuade us that all the works are worthy of revival.
The couplings are as follows: Nos. 1 ("Classical") and the revised No. 4 (ABRD 1137, LP; 8400, CD); No. 2, with the first "Romeo and Juliet" Suite (ABRD 1134, LP; 8368, CD); No. 3 and the original No. 4 (ABRD 1138, LP; 8401, CD); No. 5, with some Prokofiev waltzes (ABRD 1160, LP; 8450, CD); No. 6, with more waltzes (ABRD 1122, LP; 8359, CD); No. 7, with the Sinfonietta, Opus 48 (ABRD 1154, LP; 8442, CD).
Noticeable at the outset, in the "Classical," is the transparency of instrumental texture that is to mark the whole of the Jarvi-SNO Prokofiev, a tribute to the Chandos engineers as well as to the conductor and his responsive orchestra. Jarvi is keenly attuned to Prokofiev's ironies without overdoing them. In his hands, the First Symphony is both Classical in the sense of 18th-Century emotional restraint and instrumental balance, and modern in the polished exposition of Prokofiev's gentle harmonic and rhythmic skewing of Classical style, while the more grotesque notions of the last three symphonies are insinuated rather than blurted out.
The Second Symphony, completed in 1925 is infected with the rhythmic intensity and variability (but lacking the lyricism and lucidity) of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." This is music of contrived ugliness--music you were supposed to hate, because it depicted the inhumanity of a venal, overmechanized society. Prokofiev was reflecting in this symphony a chic and quickly self-parodying attitude prevalent in 1920s Paris, of which he was one then a resident.
The Third Symphony (1929), its themes drawn from the opera "The Fiery Angel," is a tough nut as well: noisy, chromatic to the point of extreme dissonance, and rather too calculated in its pursuit of causing listener discomfort. But its fierce rhythms are difficult to resist, nor is the score entirely without suggestions of melody.
The original 1930 version of the Fourth Symphony, again based on an earlier work, the ballet score "The Prodigal Son," is moody, subdued, rather bland stuff that made little impression on its first audiences and critics. The revision is, surprisingly, longer and more complexly scored, but rhythmically simpler and melodically expanded in an attempt to make it a more "public" work. To no avail. The Fourth remains more notable for its sullen earnestness than for any lyric inspiration.
The Sixth Symphony (1946) is a strong, brooding, often mocking work that can't have pleased the party's artistic arbiters, particularly in the wake of the Fifth Symphony which, amazingly, everybody, everywhere has liked since its premiere in 1944.
Symphony No. 7 (1952) has been widely perceived as an obsequious response to criticism from the party, what with its profusion of chipper, childlike, tinklingly orchestrated tunes. But it is also a work shot through with spiky little dissonances, patches of rhythmic irregularity--flashes of darkness, so to speak, amid the glaring sunlight. Music worth exploring--and programming.
Although one might wish for more heft and richness among the SNO strings here and there--e.g., the third movement of the Fifth Symphony, the opening movement of the Sixth--the orchestra plays exceedingly well, with a light, almost Gallic brightness of tone rather than the lushness of American orchestras. It's a sound that suits the various attractive "filler" pieces as well as it does the symphonies