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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Prokofiev Ballets

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 23 May 2005 07:40:52 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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      Sergei Prokofiev

*  Le Pas d'Acier
*  L'enfant prodigue

West German Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne/Michail Jurowski.
CPO 999 974-2 Total time: 73:08

Summary for the Busy Executive: Steel and repentance.

Prokofiev composed both Le Pas d' Acier and L' enfant prodigue for
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.  They stand among his last works
composed in the West.  One could argue (and, of course, writers indeed
have) that both show Prokofiev's state of mind at the time as at least
considering a return to Russia, a step he finally took in 1931.  Curiously,
Prokofiev, who fled the Revolution, had been viewed in the West as
representative of Soviet Man and Artist, long before he actually became
one.  We tend to forget the Modernist, experimental period of Soviet art
-- Constructivism, Shostakovich's first symphony, the poet Osip Mandelshtam
-- before the so-called Soviet Realism (not particularly realistic, by
the way) crackdown under Stalin.

Le Pas d' Acier, as well as items like the second through fourth symphonies,
was one of those works which contributed to Prokofiev's revolutionary
artistic and political image.  The title -- literally, "the steel step,"
or more poetically "the steel dance" (not "steal," as rendered throughout
the CD liner notes) -- refers to a rather outlandish plot in which a
capitalist cesspool is transformed into a workers' technological paradise.
This may be one reason why the ballet hasn't had too many performances,
despite terrific music.  Ironically, critics in the West liked the ballet
more than the Soviets did.  Soviet writers severely criticized Prokofiev's
plot as ignorant of the true nature of the People's Socialism.  Of course,
Soviet music critics were by and large of necessity required to babble
whatever nonsense the political powers told them to, and their writings
today would seem hilariously stupid, if not for the fact that they caused
suffering.

At any rate, Prokofiev's music is filled with percussive blows,
suggestive of machinery.  Still, it's Prokofiev, one of the great
melodists of the previous century.  Lyrical melody abounds, and a good
deal of the harsher stuff reminds me of the Capulet and Montague music
from the much later Romeo and Juliet.  This suggests that Prokofiev's
much-discussed simplification of style during his Soviet period was
always more a part of his musical nature than generally thought, or at
least that the simplification had occurred years before Prokofiev returned
to Russia, perhaps prodded by Stravinsky and Les Six.  Prokofiev, after
all, made Paris his home base during the Twenties.  Undoubtedly, he knew
the other music written there.  Nevertheless, the composer always sings
in his own fascinating way.  You don't mistake Prokofiev for Milhaud,
although occasionally you hear Milhaud-like sounds and rhythms.

L' enfant prodigue (the prodigal son) retells the Biblical story.  For
some strange reason, there was a Twenties fad for Biblical ballets, as
if religion were simply another badge of chic.  Incidentally, the liner
notes contain a photo from the original production.  Diaghilev aimed to
bring world-class artists together for his productions.  Very often, the
designs haven't worn well.  The costumes for L' enfant, for example,
remind me of the sperm in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to
Know About Sex.

Prokofiev stands to some extent apart from the trendiness, investing his
music with rich, human characterization, foreshadowing the late operas,
film scores, and ballets.  Unlike Le Pas d' Acier, the music closely
follows the stage action, yet works as music.  You don't need to know
the plot or see the dancers in order to enjoy Prokofiev's contribution.
Like most Biblical stories, the plot is rather stark, free of detail.
This allows the re-teller to contribute something of his own understanding
to the situation portrayed.  Again, Prokofiev's strength here lies in
characterization.  He can sketch a fairly complex father -- loving and
irresolute -- in a few measures.  However, his portrait of the son,
especially the remorseful son, is fairly extended and psychologically
detailed.  The music, extraordinarily beautiful, achieves the richness
and singing quality of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, although
it runs much shorter.

Jurowski and the Colognials do a very nice job, especially sensitive and
emotionally flexible in L' enfant.  They play the music as if they love
it.  The recorded sound is charming, aiming for a "real-hall" effect.

Steve Schwartz

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