Litton’s Prokofiev Structured Yet Exciting

Prokofiev front cover

PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7 / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton, conductor / Bis 2134 (SACD)

This is the fifth installment in Andrew Litton’s survey of the complete orchestral works of Prokofiev. The first four included the Romeo and Juliet suites (Bis 1301), Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 (1820), Symphony No. 6 and the suites from Lt. Kije and Love for Three Oranges (1994) and Symphony No. 5 with the Scythian Suite (2124), none of which I have heard.

I chose to review this disc because, except for the First Symphony (“Classical”), I’ve tried several times over the past half-century to get into Prokofiev’s Symphonies without much luck. There was just something about the music that I found not necessarily unlikable so much as rambling and poorly structured. No matter who was conducting them, they just didn’t seem to make any sense to me.

But Andrew Litton has been a conductor I’ve respected for a long time, so I figured what the heck, I’ll take a shot at it. And I’m glad I did, because these performances have a taut structure about them that makes the juxtaposed sections, some of which don’t seem to jell in others’ performances, make sense. A perfect example is the first movement of the Fourth (this is the revised 1947 version, not the 1929-30 original, which I assume Litton will be recording in due course). Here is a work that at times resembles the love scene from Romeo and Juliet, in other places the Scythian Suite, constantly shifting back and forth in an almost schizophrenic manner between these two moods. No other conductor I’ve ever heard playing this music does as much with it as Litton, and that’s more than a compliment; it’s an enthusiastic endorsement. Without sacrificing one whit of energy or passion, Litton pulls the threads of this work together in such a manner that the listener suddenly understands what the composer was trying to accomplish—well, at least that’s how I interpreted it. And let me tell you, folks, the Bergen Philharmonic plays as if they were possessed, the sound forward, crisp and clear which is usually the norm for Bis recordings and the sound of the various sections beautifully “manicured” in a way that resembles the New York Philharmonic or BBC Symphony of the 1930s under Toscanini. Even the very softest wind or string passages are clear as a bell; inner voices are continually heard without dominating the ensemble; and the brasses cleave through the massed sound without snarling or sounding rough—except for those occasional passages where Litton wants to bring out a bit of roughness, such as the very ending of the fourth’s first movement. If anything, he has grown as a conductor since the last time I sampled him. Small wonder that his reputation and career path have expanded to include the Colorado Symphony, which post he accepted after formally leaving the Bergen Philharmonic last year, as well as the New York City Ballet.

Litton’s instinctive sense of the organic allows one to follow Prokofiev’s mind as it flits from section to section and movement to movement; particularly in the dance-like third that, to my ears, closely resembles some passages from Romeo and Juliet. That being said, I’m not quite ready to endorse either symphony as a major work of art. Well crafted they may be, but craft is not inspiration. What Litton does with the music is, in a sense, greater than what Prokofiev did with it, much like hearing Respighi’s Pines of Rome or Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite performed by a master conductor. You may certainly disagree with my findings, and if you do these are most assuredly the performances you should get, but I have to be honest with myself and my own internal instincts, and I am probably more convinced than ever—now that I can properly hear the music well performed—that there are just too many spots in these symphonies where the music strives more for effect than an internal need to express one’s self through tones. In other words, Prokofiev was trying to impress the audience with his cleverness and acute mind but not saying anything personal, and because of that these symphonies are, to my ears, merely clever exercises.

Perhaps this is even more clearly evident in the Seventh Symphony, purposely written to conform to the Soviet demand for “people’s music” that was not too dissonant or difficult. The composer, quite ill at the time of its first run-through of the symphony, was assured that it would be a success, but Prokofiev kept asking, “Isn’t the music too simple?” He evidently suspected that he hadn’t given his best, yet in some ways this Seventh Symphony is not merely easier on the ears than the dissonant Fifth and Sixth Symphonies but, for me, more cohesive in form and also more personally expressive. Perhaps because he wasn’t trying to “dazzle with bullshit,” he simply leaned back, relaxed, and produced a surprisingly sunny, attractive, and—dare I say it?—more touching work. Even the soft, lightly scored flute and string passage around 6:15 in the first movement has more to say than many of the in-your-face dissonances of the Fourth. And without those abrasive episodes, the music has a much greater flow and continuity about it…or, at least, it does the way Litton conducts it. Listen, for instance, to the soaring melody at 8:10 in that same first movement, and you’ll hear what I mean. The strings play with a special sort of energy, imbuing the music with not just a lyric feeling but also one of ecstasy.

Indeed, even the second-movement “Allegretto” is more interesting, and has more charm, than the fourth’s corresponding “Moderato, quasi allegretto” (the movement that sounded so much like Romeo and Juliet). When the music shifts and changes it does so much more organically, and although Andrew Huth’s liner notes make a big fuss over the use of a glockenspiel near the end of the finale and the manner in which the music hangs in the air, “in the tonic key but emotionally unresolved,” lacking “the necessary Soviet optimism,” I hear it simply as an expression of calm. Don’t make such a big fuss out of nothing, folks. Remember Mr. Natural.

The slow movement of the Seventh is surely one of Prokofiev’s finest melodic creations, and Litton and the orchestra play it for all it’s worth. On this recording, an alternate version of the last movement is also given after the published one, in which Prokofiev added a 22-bar coda to the symphony’s end but either way this movement is among the composer’s most lighthearted works. The whole tone of the movement is one of lighthearted, almost galumphing wit, and here is where he uses the most contrasting sections in different tempi. The tacked-on extra ending, I felt, was not merely superfluous but didn’t fit the preceding material. It sounds a bit like Peter chasing the wolf after Juliet has gone to sleep dreaming of Romeo.

All in all, however, this is a splendid recording of two of Prokofiev’s later symphonies and well recommended to those listeners who appreciate this music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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