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Finally, a Weekend Fuss For Unlucky Prokofiev

Tuesday, December 18, 2001
Allan Kozinn - The New York Times

Prokofiev appears to have become the poor relation among the great 20th century Russian composers. The music world spends plenty of time examining and agonizing over the life and music of Shostakovich, and Stravinsky looms over the lot despite the relatively small percentage of his music – virtually all of it early – that has become part of the standard repertory. This year Lincoln Center and Canergie Hall are paying lavish attention to Rachmaninoff. But Prokofiev seems to be lingering at the corner of the table, present but not making a fuss.

It isn’t as if his music has fallen off the map. The favorites –the “Lieutenant Kije” Suite, the Sixth and Seventh Piano Sonatas, the “Classical” and Fifth Symphonies, the Flute Sonata, both Violin Concertos and the Third Piano Concerto – turn up most seasons. “Alexander Nevsky” is performed regularly, often with screenings of the film it was written to illuminate.

Rarities like “The Fiery Angel” and “War and Peace” attract attention when they are revived. No doubt casual listeners can identify more works by Prokofiev than by Stravinsky and Shostakovich combined. Surely Prokofiev deserves a share of the analytical spotlight this year, the 110th anniversary of his birth. (He died in 1953.)

The conductor Valery Gergiev and the pianist Alexander Toradze , with a large assembly of associates, spent part of the weekend calling attention to Prokofiev. On Saturday evening Mr. Gergiev devoted the third of his four Carnegie Hall concerts with the Kirov Orcestra to three grandly scaled works by this composer: the “Scythian Suite,” the Fifth Symphony and the Second Piano Concerto. The Soloist in the concerto was Mr. Toradze, who directs the Toradze Piano Studio at Indiana University in South Bend. And on Sunday evening at Miller Theater, Mr. Toradze and six of his students and colleagues from the studio played all nine of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas in a four-and-a-half-hour marathon concert.

Mr. Gergiev, fresh from his final Kirov concert on Sunday afternoon, turned up at the sonata recital to speak about Prokofiev’s work and in particular the composer’s often fraught relationship with the Soviet Union, both at the start of the program and after the intermission. And lest this appearance be regarded as a quick celebrity turn, Mr. Gergiev remained to the bitter end, near midnight, following the scores of the late sonatas.

Wrapped around all of this were essays by Richard Taruskin in both the Canergie and Miller program books. There was some natural overlap: mention of Prokofiev’s childhood as a pampered prodigy and his having been brought up to “regard peers and rivals as inferiors.”
Mostly, though, the Canergie notes were more constrained, partly because they were part of a larger set of notes for the four concert series, although one had the feeling as well that the order of the day was to tell only the good news. Mr. Taruskin’s more expansive notes for the Miller program look a bit more closely at Prokofiev’s flaws (an “unlovably ambitious, narcissistic and opportunistic man,” he calls him) but also go more thoroughly into what Prokofiev was about musically.

In particular he shows the ways in which Prokofiev’s veneer of modernism was a thin membrane beneath which a lyrical heart beat to the rules of Classical form and Romantic emotionalism. And he explores a theme he has examined elsewhere, the relationship between artists and the totalitarian state.

He lets Prokofiev off more easily than, say, Shostakovich, on the ground that Prokofiev was a semi-invalid by the time he began writing his late works, which were commanded by the government for propaganda. But he also makes the point that our perception of works written as propaganda during the Stalin era is bound to our knowledge of the time and the personalities at hand.

The music itself, he writes, is “highly palatable stuff, unless you know its date. When you do know it, and when you know the fear and trembling that stood behind the folksy anodynes and the smooth or stirring platitudes, it is the most indigestible music in the world.”

Mr. Gergiev wasn’t so sure, and that would a survey of a Soviet composer be without a dispute? Discussing the appeal that certain of Prokofiev’s propaganda works holds for him, on purely musical grounds, he said during the post-intermission talk that “I am interested in Prokofiev, not in Stalin,” and added that dismissing such works because of their extramusical associations was “cheap.”

The performances, meanwhile, offered arguments of their own. At the Kirov concert a listener could understand that the “Scythian Suite” from 1916 is in some ways a pale attempt to ride on the coattails of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” but still be drawn in by its swaggering grandeur, its vivid instrumentation, its sharp rhythms (less varied than Stravinsky’s though they are) and its alluring harmonic murkiness. The Fifth Symphony, composed a lifetime away in 1994, is more muscular and assured, yet many of the stylistic thumbprints that distinguish Prokofiev’s voice in this work – particularly the acidic, pointed melodies – were already peeking through the textures of the “Scythian Suite.”

The Kirov Orchestra gave magnificent, auditorium-shaking performances of both works. Still, the most memorable of the performances was Mr. Toradze’s account of the Second Concerto, composed in 1912-13 and reworked in 1923.

Mr. Gergiev argued at the Miller Theater that much of Prokofiev’s music is programmatic rather than abstract, in the sense that his works are highly emotional responses to his milieu. In the case of this concerto, we know the program: Prokofiev wrote the work after learning that a close friend had committed suicide, and its textures are dark, passionate and, not least, angry. Those qualities lend themselves to both sheer virtuosity and songful lyricism, and Mr. Toradze mined those qualities with spectacular results.

At the sonata marathon, Mr. Toradze reserved the best work, the Seventh Sonata, for himself, and he played it with much the same explosiveness as he played the concerto. Here, though, the music and Mr. Toradze’s efforts were part of a larger unfolding story. These nine sonatas are a lot to sit through, but they trace Prokofiev’s musical life from his student days (the Sonata No. 1, from 1909) to nearly his last ( the Sonata No. 9, from 1947).

The First, played with a Lisztian steaminess by Sean Botkin (who also played No. 5), is so rooted in Germanic forms and French harmonic language that it is barely recognizable as Prokofiev. In the Second, though, Prokofiev’s voice takes form, and thereafter each work shows his compositional personality from at least a slightly different angle. The heart of the set of course are the three wartime sonatas, in which Mr. Toradze was joined by Vahtang Kodanashvili and Alexander Korsantia for performances of the Sixth and Eighth that were as thunderous and rollicking as his own reading of the Seventh. Mr. Korsantia also played No. 3.

The other pianists who performed were Edisher Savitsky (Sonata No.2), Ketevan Badridze (Sonata No. 4) and Georege Vatchnadze, who closed the concert with a crystalline account of the almost Mozartean Sonata No. 9.



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