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PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 6 in e-flat; Waltz Suite – Sao Paulo Sym. Orch./ Marin Alsop – Naxos

Two contrasting Prokofiev works of 1947 capture our attention through the ongoing series by Marin Alsop.

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 6 in e-flat minor, Op. 111; Waltz Suite, Op. 110 – Sao Paulo Sym. Orch./ Marin Alsop – Naxos 8.573518, 68:21 (8/12/16) ****:

Prokofiev conceived his 1947 Sixth Symphony as an elegy of the tragedy of the Second World War, as the “darker twin” to his victorious Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major. Prokofiev said of the symphony, “Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.” While Prokofiev had considered dedicating the music – due to the coincidence of opus number to Beethoven’s last piano sonata – “to the memory of Beethoven,” his more immediate influence lay in the music and pedagogy of colleague Nicolai Miaskovsky, whose work likewise suffered from the 1948 Zhdanov decrees that condemned music “hostile” to the Soviet version of “the spirit of the people.” While Yevgeny Mravinsky gave the world premiere, it was Stokowski’s New York performance of 1949 that announced to the West Prokofiev’s tragic vision and sense of the modern Apocalypse.

The entire Sixth Symphony (rec. 15-18, 20 April 2015) projects a gloomy, sardonic sensibility, quite capable of transforming into penetrating anguish. The music opens with muted brass, evolving what seem to be pastoral and militant impulses that contradict each other. The English horn and French horn play significant roles in the more lyrical textures; when the lower woodwinds chug at each other against the strings we can hear something of the ‘old Prokofiev’ and his balletic penchant. The orchestration thickens and will become ominous and threatening. Alsop wants to soften some of the passing dissonances and clashes of harmony, but her tympani and brass make the point that suffering marks the spot. The agitation and restless quality of the harmony has progressed into an assault that grudgingly quiets itself until the coda, which returns to the ostinato pattern ushering in brass chords that make the E-flat Major “resolution” appear tenuous at best.

The shrill Largo in A-flat Major hardly grants us any relief. Commentators call the music a “threnody,” and its passionate and often grueling figures would easily fall within the contexts of his Romeo and Juliet ballet score. Alsop’s strings convey heartfelt disquietude, and the brass and piano add to the angst.  More sonic conceits from warfare emerge, including a “ticking” motion in the woodwinds and (piano-based) percussion that collude with pounding tympani. Prokofiev imitates Gabrieli for some mournful recollection of the lyric theme in the brass. Before the coda, the theme of lamentation reappears, and a kind of music-box figure proffers some sense of “paradise lost.” Despite the “pomp and circumstance of war,” the coda subsides quietly, the solo oboe and trumpet intoning over harmonies that grant us little consolation. The last movement, Vivace, opens in a lively E-flat Major, with jaunty, if irreverent, percussion. Are we hearing a parody of Peter and the Wolf? The character of this virtuosic music remains bittersweet, sometimes exhibiting great lyric power, but just as often martial figures which, when applied fugato, achieve a potent menace. Alsop negotiates the tricky metrics with agile sweep.

In the midst of whatever affirmation this music achieves, it suddenly reverts – once more, Ave Beethoven! – to the cyclical gambit of returning to the chorale-like motif from movement one. The temporary calm soon erupts into a paroxysm of despair, unbearable enough to generate the martial tropes that urge us to a defiant and numbing denouement.

Prokofiev, like Mozart and Handel, had no issues with recycling old scores into new symphonic bottles: so his 1947 six-movement Waltz Suite selects its cues from several sources, like the film War and Peace, the ballet Cinderella, and the abortive score for the film Lermontov. “Since We Met” opens the suite, taken from War and Peace. The music has breadth and wit, two Prokofiev staples, as well as orchestration that heeds more than several hints from Tchaikovsky. The ghostly “In the Palace” from Cinderella has many lovely touches for strings, woodwinds and punctuated brass. The “Mephisto Waltz” sequence – all credit to Liszt – derives from the film Lermontov. Marked Allegro precipitato, the music conveys the ripe energy of a Russian ball scene whose mischief lies close at hand. Some clever sliding effects scurry through Alsop’s principals, especially her first violin. The Adagio from Cinderella ensures, called “End of the Fairy Tale.” We might speculate if the title applies to “Soviet Realism.” The diviso string effect makes us tip a hat to the Sao Paulo players and to sound engineer Ulrich Schneider. Both of the two remaining movements – “New Year’s Eve Ball” (from War and Peace) and “Happiness” (from Cinderella) – maintain the festively optimistic quality of balletic dance music, rather a strong contrast to the mighty symphonic work that dominates this album.

—Gary Lemco

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