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A Calmer Look at Prokofiev's Work for Stalin

July 28, 1996|Herbert Glass | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the days of the Evil Empire, it was fashionable either to make humane excuses for or to savagely condemn the major Soviet musicians when they produced works specifically intended to please Josef Stalin. Nowadays, we can listen and judge not the artist but the art, not all of which is as rotten as it seemed in more confrontational times.

Stalin liked to see himself portrayed in art as paternal, and this is the case, we are told, in Prokofiev's 1939 cantata "Zdravitsa," the Russian word for a congratulatory toast, which has received its first commercial recording (IMP Masters 303660).

Worse music exists; it's right here on the same CD. But what is important about this and other public scores by the Soviet composers of genius is that it bought them the benign neglect that came with official favor. Without "Zdravitsa," we are unlikely to have had the challenging private works that came from Prokofiev in its wake, particularly the three wartime piano sonatas, Nos. 6, 7 and 8.

The cantata is enthusiastically delivered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the LPO Choir under Derek Gleeson. Too bad, however, that the IMP producers decided not to use the original text--"sycophantic," according to the CD's annotator--that Prokofiev set, employing instead a weak-kneed affair concocted well after both Stalin and Prokofiev had died, on the same day: March 3, 1953.

The new text is in keeping with the spirit of the folk tunes that inhabit the piece rather than with glorifying the Supreme Leader. Tacky as a description of the original may sound today, it is what the cantata was created for in the first place. As a document of an era, then, this recording does only half the job, perpetuating the kind of censorship that was routinely practiced at the time of the composition of "Zdravitsa."

That said, "Zdravitsa" is a pleasant piece of occasional music, partly in a pastoral vein (signified by extensive use of harp and strings), then brassily jubilant. The tangy choral writing, and at times the instrumentation, is reminiscent of a much better, slightly earlier propaganda score by Prokofiev, "Alexander Nevsky."


IMP's major and equally rare companion piece is "Kradosti," or "Ode," a sort of term paper for Tchaikovsky's graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1866. He thereafter suppressed it, rightly regarding it as a callow, egotistical indiscretion. It is, after all, a setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven had already accomplished with some success earlier in the 19th century. "Kradosti" was not published until 1960.

Its interest today lies in how far the composer would turn from its Wagnerian idiom--the lyric-festive Wagner of "Lohengrin"--in his subsequent works.

The LPO Chorus again sings lustily, and the tenor soloist, Alexander Naoumenko, handles his tough assignment with aplomb. The mezzo, Ludmilla Semchuk, on the other hand, is afflicted with an advanced case of the wobbles.

The program is rounded out by the original version of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," more diffuse and densely orchestrated than in its final form but with the latter's killer tunes already in place.


Another choral rarity by Tchaikovsky is the cantata "Moscow," written for the coronation of Czar Alexander III in 1883. Its rabble-rousing text--the Soviets didn't invent Russian nationalist hype--is a fanciful history of the Russian capital, culminating in Moscow becoming "the new Rome," under (who else?) Alexander III.

The melodies are unfailingly attractive, the word painting evocative, the orchestration brilliant. All of it is superbly played by the Dallas Symphony under its music director, Andrew Litton, and sung with the requisite punch by the Dallas Symphony Chorus. The baritone soloist, Vassily Gerello, adds the right note of poetic bravado, but his partner, mezzo Svetlana Furdui, is hardly a model of steadiness under pressure.

Litton's all-Tchaikovsky program (Delos 3196) also includes the "1812" Overture, in Igor Buketoff's choral (and, happily, artillery-less) edition, and a flavorful reading of that darkest of the composer's symphonic poems, the unjustly neglected "Voyevode," inspired by Pushkin's ballad of lethal jealousy.

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