RECORDS / DOUBLE PLAY: Supporting the reds and the blues: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on recordings of Prokofiev and Gershwin
Saturday 24 October 1992
(speaker), Philharmonia Orchestra
and Chorus / Neeme Jarvi
(Chandos CHAN 9095)
A FEW words of advice: close all doors and windows, swallow hard. Prokofiev's October Cantata begins with a scream and ends with the red flag raised high and the words of Joseph Stalin on the lips of the multitude - a great choral paean to the future of communism. How innocent, no, how staggeringly naive it all sounds now, the musical equivalent of those gaudy, hand-painted propaganda posters or the heroic sculptures on revolutionary mausoleums. October is a collector's item, comrade Prokofiev doing his patriotic duty with a will.
For better or worse, he believed in these notes: big, rolling, idealistic tunes carry Lenin and Stalin's words to the people (don't look too closely at the texts). They are the shape of War and Peace to come. In the aftermath of revolutionary victory the shimmer of frosty air foreshadows the movie mood-painting of Alexander Nevsky. 'Revolution' itself is more Boy's Own than Eisenstein, a 10-minute comic strip leaving precious little to the imagination - gunfire, alarm bells, sirens invade the percussion section, extra brass reinforce the choral declamations, an accordion band brings the proletariat dancing into the fray, and Gennady Rozhdestvensky is comrade Lenin, his baton laid down for a megaphone. Get the picture?
Jarvi and his forces do rather well. And they are back to the land with excerpts from another Prokofiev rarity, the ballet The Stone Flower - music of coarse-ground, peasanty exuberance played with grit and amplitude. ES
SERMONS by Stalin, hortatory extracts from Lenin and the Communist Manifesto, grandiose, aggressively 'realistic' orchestral writing, extra accordions and military band, rabble-rousing speeches delivered through megaphones - what place is there for the likes of the October Cantata in the post-Soviet world? Well, for one thing there are no 'likes' of Prokofiev's October. For whatever reasons, he seems to have thrown all his energies and gifts into this monstrous project, and the result is something that thrills and amazes in spite of itself.
Neeme Jarvi seems to have energised the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra wonderfully. One or two exposed passages in the choral writing show signs of strain; otherwise the conviction, sweep and muscularity are enough to make one suspect seething revolutionary feeling on the South Bank. The Stone Flower is gentler on the ears, readier with the charm, with roots thrust deeper into 19th-century nationalist soil, but just as inescapably Prokofiev at every twist and sudden turn. The recording has atmosphere and clarity. SJ
GERSHWIN: Piano Concerto in F. Rhapsody in Blue.
Howard Shelley, Philharmonia
Orchestra / Yan Pascal Tortelier
(Chandos CHAN 9092)
ANYONE who can turn Rachmaninov with Howard Shelley's instinctive malleability has to be a natural for Gershwin. And he is. The opening of the Concerto finds him relaxed, laid-back, as if strumming away alone in the wee small hours. But he can be grand and glamorous, playful and quick-witted, too; he understands how the Second Rhapsody is caught in a cross-current between urban grittiness and Hollywood dreams. His Rhapsody in Blue is chic and sophisticated, born of the concert hall but mindful of the jazz club - he lacks only the sheer volatility, the improvisational heat of a Leonard Bernstein or a Michael Tilson Thomas.
As for Tortelier and the Philharmonia - forget the American in Paris and open your ears to this Frenchman in New York. You could lose yourself in the opulence of the orchestral sound. The high-lacquer sheen of the strings, impatient for the next swoony blues, the almost indecently ripe horn embellishments of the Second Rhapsody, the husky trumpet solo at the heart of the Concerto, and a flute who bends the blue notes just as seductively.
I am still drawn by the sepia-toned jazz-band original of Rhapsody in Blue (Andrew Litton's is the recording to have), but this symphony-of-the-stars swings and luxuriates well enough. In another life, Chandos must have engineered for Busby Berkeley. ES
HOWARD SHELLEY and Yan Pascal Tortelier's performance of the long-neglected Second Rhapsody could have been designed to bear out Keith Potter's contention in the insert-note that darkness - a reflection perhaps of collapsing national morale in the early 1930s - is at the heart of it. There is an urgent, almost grimly determined quality - even the humour has a sinister glint. It's not that Shelley plays down the brilliance of the piano writing - there's plenty of devilish panache, and he seems to delight in the sheer sonorousness of the more richly textured solos - but beguiling it isn't.
In fact there are moments in all three performances where the arc-light casts surprisingly inky shadows - hints of a nightmare Broadway that might at any moment turn into an expressionist film-set. The trumpet solo that leads into the nightscape of the concerto's slow movement carries more than a hint of desolation. Even Rhapsody in Blue has its astringent moments.
The orchestral playing is as stylish and sonorous as Shelley's, and the recording gives extra edge to climaxes. Relentless? It can be, but the drive is compelling, the vision unexpected and often convincing. SJ
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