Prokofiev – Man of the People?

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Helen Wallace heads to the Southbank Centre for Vladimir Jurowski's series exploring the music of this Russian great

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In his bold new series at the Southbank Centre, 'Prokofiev: Man of the People?' Vladimir Jurowski challenges the widely-held view that the composer returned to Russia for reasons of vanity, and paid for it with his creative authenticity. We can’t seem to forgive the lack of angst in his glitteringly beautiful scores, and deny him the greatness accorded the appropriately grim Shostakovich.

Jurowski is right that Prokofiev’s style had already shown the arch elegance, voluptuous melodic gift and open accessibility long before his return. To ask him to write music of anguished suffering would have been like asking Walton to write the War Requiem. His form of expression was of another type entirely. Yes, some of his last works were compromised, but as this concert so gloriously proved, who but a spiritual optimist could have written the effervescent Lieutenant Kije? And if Jurowski wanted us to discover ‘the vulnerable soul that lies behind the façade’, it’s surely laid bare in the final, glistening seventh symphony.

In both the Kijé Suite and the Symphony, the 'pleasure principle' is palpable: Prokofiev was the true heir of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and conjures enchantment from the orchestral palette like few others: who else would give the double bassist a solo so high he treads on the viola’s territory? Who but Prokofiev knows when to gild his flute with harp, to echo a viola solo with bass trombone and dramatise a moral dilemma with flute and alto sax? The effects are so vivid you can almost taste them.

The seventh symphony was intended originally for children; and its magic lies in that sense of emerging-from-the-egg newness. Conducted by Alexander Vedernikov, the anxious opening where violins teeter out on a hire-wire above an abyss of tuba, lacked some atmosphere. His Allegretto was relaxed, the strings irresistibly caressing their insouciant waltz-like themes, but he ratcheted up tension just in time as brass and wind suddenly solidfy the texture. The Andante’s homage to Eugene Onegin had poignant grace, while the LPO was on cracking form for the wizardry of the Vivace, mellifluous brass and wind solos rang out across bristling strings. The finale’s menacing ticking made its effect: no wonder the censor demanded something jollier. In those sinister last moments we’re back on the edge of the abyss and time is running out.

The Concerto in E minor (1938), is rarely played and Danjulo Ishizaka’s expert performance revealed why: it’s finger-shreddingly difficult, with rather thin musical rewards. Ishizaka made us far too aware of how all the notes were being measured out, up and down the fingerboard. And what a lot of them: with his gleaming-toned Strad we heard every one of them, but with little variation in timbre or dynamic, or sense of dialogue with the orchestra. The sudden sweetness of leader Dennis Kim’s tone in an intimate duet was startlingly human. A tough work indeed, whose problems Prokofiev would solve in the 1952 Sinfonia Concertante.

Further highlights in this imaginatively programmed series:
Steven Osborne plays Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 on Wednesday 18 January;
Simon Callow reads the Prokofiev Diaries 3.30pm Sunday 22 January;
The ballet Chout, and Leon Fleischer in Piano Concerto No. 4 Wednesday 25 January;
Ivan the Terrible (world premiere) Saturday 28 January

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine