LABELS: Chandos Classics
WORKS: On Guard for Peace; Queen of Spades – Symphonic Suite (arr. M Berkeley)
PERFORMER: Niall Docherty (boy soprano), Irina Tchisjakova (mezzo-soprano, narrator); Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus & Junior Chorus; Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10519
Here are superb performances of lesser-known Prokofiev works. Neeme Järvi understands the drama of Prokofiev’s music, as is evident in his celebrated cycle of the symphonies, and here he conducts by some margin the most convincing account of Prokofiev’s final choral work, On Guard for Peace.
This was Prokofiev’s best attempt, having been lambasted by Soviet officials for his tragic Sixth Symphony, to write music calculated to please those authorities with jolly children’s choruses and an extensive mezzo lullaby assuring her child he may sleep as he is protected by his ‘best friend…in the Kremlin’ (aka Stalin).
The other rarity is the film score Queen of Spades, originally intended for the 1937 centenary of Pushkin’s death: its austere style is more in line with Pushkin’s sardonic tale than Tchaikovsky’s celebrated opera, but the film was quashed by the official demand that films should have contemporary relevance.
Here we have a version based on Michael Berkeley’s adaptation for London’s Royal Ballet (to a completely different scenario), though it should be said much of Prokofiev’s score – indeed rather more than is heard here – has been previously recorded by Michail Jurowski with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Berkeley’s adaptation involves a larger orchestra, including harp and bells, and much elaboration of Prokofiev’s themes – including one Prokofiev himself later adapted for the slow movement of his Fifth Symphony. All this is given a polished performance by Järvi and his Scottish forces. However some of Berkeley’s twiddly elaborations and countermelodies jar, and Prokofiev fans may prefer the more austere original.
Those who have wanted a first-class performance of Prokofiev’s On Guard need not hesitate. I suspect, though, that this release – which does not show Prokofiev at his most inspired – is really for die-hard fans. Daniel Jaffé