PROKOFIEV: Symphonic Suite from War and Peace (arr. C. Palmer), Op. 91; Suite from The Duenna, Op. 123; Russian Overture, Op. 72 – Philharmonia Orchestra/Neeme Jarvi
Chandos CHAN 10538X, 64:03 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Originally recorded 2 March 1991 (War and Peace) and 15 November 1991 (Duenna and Russian Overture), this fine reissue celebrates one of the composer’s most cherished scores, his 1941 operatic setting of Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel. The background of WW II provided Prokofiev the fitting context for Tolstoy’s saga of the Napoleonic Wars, evoking Russia’s national past and her resistance to tyranny. Conductor Samuil Samosud suggested to Prokofiev he add the ball scene that opens the novel’s 1810 narrative. Prokofiev composed a sequence of ballroom dances, glittering and swaying tapestries that have their basis in Glinka’s B Minor Valse-Fantasie. The polonaise Prokofiev offers is in 4/4 time, alternating with ¾. The Intermezzo–set at the Rostov estate–conveys the same nocturnal, mysterious charm that Romeo and Juliet projects; here, the characters Natasha and Sonya appear in their garden, noting the lovely stream that undulates in the moonlight. The Finale captures the retreat of 1812 along the Smolensk road, the French frozen and demoralized, while Russian Baba Yagas and demons swirl in the bitter air. Russian partisans descend murderously in fortissimo chords that celebrate Marshall Kutuzov, maestoso trionfale. The Philharmonia brass and strings urge the inspired Victory music, Allegro fastoso–Andante maestoso, with terrific implacable power.
Prokofiev himself made an orchestral suite from elements of his 1940 opera Betrothal in a Monastery (The Duenna, after the play by Sheridan) in 1950: he called it Summer Night. The setting in Madrid provided national colors for Prokofiev, much in the way Glinka’s Summer Night in Madrid revels in exotic harmonies and textures. The opera is a comic love story with a convoluted plot, the genre in which Mozart and Rossini excelled. The stately Serenade easily reminds us of the ballet music for Cinderella. The Minuet reverts to the style of Romeo and Juliet, a swaggering tune in motley colors. The sequence entitled Dreams extends the affect in the form of a barcarolle which could easily have been the slowly swelling movement of a symphony, certainly an extended pas de deux in a ballet. The final Dance combines lyricism and irony, the inevitable Prokofiev formula. A strutting Allegretto, it basks in gaudy Andalusian colors, Marlene Dietrich mocking hapless Lionel Atwill in The Devil is a Woman.
The 1936 Russian Overture, premiered by Eugene Szenkar in Moscow, proves a brilliant tour-de-force for small orchestra, a display piece that rivals Stravinsky’s Petrushka for orchestral audacities. Alternating huge blocks of discordant sound with singing, balalaika and hymnal textures, the piece indulges any number of metric irregularities and polyphonic combinations that both tease and beguile us. Jarvi meets the vigor of the writing with a verve that acknowledges the virtuoso caliber of the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Prokofiev hard lines and steely vivacity meet a national folk idiom head-on, resulting in iconoclastic magic.