Horenstein conducts PROKOFIEV = Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical”; Suite from The Buffoon, Op. 21a; Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Lt. Kije – Suite, Op. 60 – Concerts Colonne Orchestra Paris/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio PASC 528 (2 CDs) TT: 1:49:24 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:  

Jascha Horenstein (1898-1973) first approached the music of Serge Prokofiev in the 1930s, during a tour of the Soviet Union. By the time of Horenstein’s contractual work for Vox Records in 1954, he had a long and established legacy in the Prokofiev legacy, and the Vox team in Paris captured his collaboration with the Colonne ensemble in especially clear, athletic sound. The 1917 Classical Symphony in D Major—a product of the composer’s early studies with Alexandre Tcherepnin—enjoys a fine, dashing spirit, and a lean verve that rivals those equally impressive documents from Koussevitzky and Malko. The flute part proves engaging and flexible, supported by a host of active colors. The Gavotte from the French baroque we know just as well from Romeo and Juliet. The Finale: Allegro molto, for all of its rhythmic antics, flows seamlessly to a stirring, deft coda.

The 1921 ballet Chout – The Buffoon came as a result of Prokofiev’s desire to please impresario Diaghliev, since Prokofiev’s first ballet Ala and Lolly, had not.  In twelve sections or tableaux taken from an Alexander Afanasyev’s folk tale—via the writings of Maxim Gorky—of wife-beating, the suite has a breezy, slightly manic character, incorporating aspects of magic and much from Stravinsky, including allusions from Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Several of the discordant harmonies in Prokofiev’s distinctive, slashing rhythms (as in “The Young Woman Becomes a Goat”) will doubtless “apologize” for his Scythian Suite. Oriental riffs and trumpet interjects run rampant. Horenstein committed the score to memory specifically for this recording of 1954. The performance generates crisp, resounding with blaring brass, mordant tuba, and anguished English horn. A bizarre combination of lurid violence and grotesque lyricism, the mood strangely parallels much of what we find in Bartok’s more political allegory The Miraculous Mandarin.

According to the notes provided by Mischa Horenstein, Jascha Horenstein led the first of his Paris performances of the 1944 Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev on 22 October 1954 “to clamorous critical and public acclaim.”  Prokofiev suggested that the spirit of the Fifth Symphony means to “sing the praises of the free and happy man.”  A degree of pantheism infiltrates this music, respecting as it does the sense of “radiant nature.”  Prokofiev never ceased to admire the contours and rigors of the Classical sonata-form as a proper structure for his own works, despite their often angular and iconoclastic harmony. While strings, flute and bassoon contribute to the arching theme of the Andante movement, the brass acquire a stentorian authority in the course of the development.  The composer’s biographer Nestyev testified that, at the climax of the first movement, he felt the urgency of the music’s “glorification of strength and beauty of the human spirit.”  Horenstein’s last pages prove particularly expansive, with the grumbling figures in the basses providing more obstacles for the top line to overcome.

Portrait Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev,
circa 1918

The solo clarinet announces the manic figure that sets the Allegro marcato (scherzo) based on two notes into motion: what ensues are a series of variations on the jabbing melody. Both Koussevitzky and Celibidache loved to slow down the central section march in triple meter’s pulse, so that the brooding, incremental march of the da capo would mount and then explode in the manner of a turbine gone berserk. Horenstein takes no such “repose” prior to the re-entry of the outer section. Here, the Colonne clarinets, violas, and battery sections, as they had realized in the first movement, seem alert to deliver Horenstein’s tempos and astringent harmonies at fever pitch.

The tripartite Adagio movement opens with a gloomy tread that soon allows a mournful, elastic tune to rise on clarinets and strings. The snare drum and harp contribute to the martial melancholy of the occasion. Over more ostinati the melody rises and then dips into low, doxology. When the music proceeds in the high strings, the Colonne players evoke a weirdly anguished hymn. The coda, too, set to strings and piccolo, achieves a haunted perspective that perhaps echoes the horrors of our last mid-century through which “heroism” might have to prove itself. Woodwinds and cellos alternately set the course for the Allegro giocoso last movement. The solo clarinet introduces the various periods of this sonata-rondo form in which Prokofiev pays homage to Haydn, even its use of perpetuo-moto rhythms. Horenstein builds a towering edifice from the plethora of motives – not the least of which is the “Russian” chorale tune from the cello section and answered by the brass – piled upon each other, urged to a rousing coda of turbulent energy and illuminated colors.

The 1933-34 Suite for Lt. Kije, Op. 60 derives from an anecdote about Czar Paul I, reigning from 1796-1801, who may well have been a mental incompetent. Prokofiev procured the story from one Yuri Tynianov, who had collected tales and anecdotes about the eccentric Czar. The entire notion of an imaginary hero’s receiving a birth, marriage, distinctions and death may have found its way to George Orwell, who in his novel 1984, creates Comrade Ogilvy for “posterity,” even while “real” men and women manage to have themselves eliminated for political expediency. The sense of ironic mockery pervades this delicious score, the first flute and tenor saxophone define the “Kije” motif, while a flurry of martial effects lights up “The Birth of Kije.” The double bass and solo viola announce the “Romance,” which easily captures the spirit of Russian folk song. Kije takes a wife in the third movement, in which ponderous brass music braces the key idea, a wedding song that imitates a children’s round dance. The Colonne battery – piano, percussion, and harp – intone a winter “Troika” scene, meant to have soldiers fetch Kije on a sleigh. The “Burial of Kife” reminisces – after a cornet fanfare and snare drum homage – on the prior movements, the violins and cornet intoning a funeral for an empty coffin.  The solo flute reprises the “Kije” motif as he fades into aesthetic distance.

—Gary Lemco