ENDNOTES – Prokofiev, Szymanowski, Vaughan Williams and Arnold

Endnotes – Prokofiev, Complete Works for Violin; Szymanowski in the High Tatras; Malcolm Arnold and Vaughan Williams in classic recordings

STUART MILLSON looks to Europe’s east

Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) is, possibly, one of the most difficult composers to discuss. For me, he was – at first – very difficult to warm to: his ballet music to Romeo and Juliet seeming harsh, relentless, bare-boned and occasionally brash, and even the episodes which were supposed to convey tenderness seemed to be hard to touch – as if a small charge of static electricity was always present beneath the surface. There was a tremendous thrill to the Death of Tybalt sequence, but listening to it, I saw not just an Errol Flynn-style swordfight, but the menace of Soviet Russia and the life and times of the composer. I was determined to try to like Prokofiev, and so turned to the Fifth Symphony, a work of huge breadth, but somehow consumed by its complicated inner workings and ideas – although with radiant moments of genuine warmth in the first movement, and fast, rhythmic excitement in the second. Yet still, Sergey Sergeyevich was a difficult companion. Over recent weeks, though, I have found a way into Prokofiev, via a 1975 CBS vinyl record of a young Andrew Davis conducting the Cinderella ballet (an icily-enchanting vision of the fairytale), and a beautifully-recorded two-CD set of the composer’s complete music for violin – featuring the Violin Concerto No.1 in D Major, Op. 19 (first performed in 1923); the Concerto No. 2, a product of the 1930s; and the two Sonatas for Violin and Piano.

The Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, plays the two concertos, accompanied by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. The partnership (recorded by Chandos at the new performance venue of Media City, Salford) seems to be perfect for these absolutely, unmistakably 20th-century works – 20th-century in the sense of having within them all the quicksilver energy, emphatic self-belief, emotional neuroses, flashes and blasts of life, and (in contrast) pools of bittersweet reflection and delicacy which mark the new art of that hundred years of wars, revolutions and dictators. The Violin Concerto No. 1 is brilliantly despatched (and I wonder how much of a model it was for Walton’s emotional concerto of 1939) – with Ehnes and his accompanists drifting into the final passage of the work, as if in a nocturnal dream, under bright stars, and with a strange, ‘tick-tock’ sense of time being marked out, time slowing down, of thoughts revolving and fading. One of Prokofiev’s interests was astronomy, so perhaps something of this pursuit filtered into the work. The Second Violin Concerto is especially notable for its second movement, Andante assai – music that evokes for me a sense of being in a garden of roses, where there is a faint atmosphere of incipient decay: Prokofiev always having that soft, sinister touch.

Completed in 1946, the First Violin Sonata is a work of great virtuosity and depth. Set in four movements, the third movement – Andante – stands out for its perfect, part-lyrical and part-spectral atmosphere; its hypnotic and addictive quality. You will not want the movement to end, and I found myself playing it over and over again. The same is true of the Moderato first movement of the Second Sonata, with its confident, striding, arching theme that brings to mind the first movement of the Fifth Symphony.

Karol Symanowski

The Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), can be placed very easily in a concert programme alongside Prokofiev – but Szymanowski, although ‘difficult’, with discordant moments, is altogether much more of a true late-romantic. His Third Symphony, for example, “Song of the Night” (a setting of poems by an Islamic mystic, for tenor soloist, large orchestra and chorus) is an act of homage to exoticism itself; the style of music, a fusion of Debussy, Mahler, Wagner, and the Russian recluse and Theosophist, Alexander Scriabin (composer of The Poem of Ecstasy). If you require music that takes you into a sometimes startling dreamworld, with lush, heavy orchestral textures giving way to tiny filaments of sound evaporating into a nigh sky, Szymanowski is an ideal choice. Smaller-scale than Wagner, and more contemplative than Scriabin, the Polish composer is perhaps more properly categorised as a more discordant Debussy. However, the ballet-pantomime, Harnasie, sees Szymanowski in a more down-to-earth setting, absorbed by the folk-music of the High Tatras, and a story of shepherds, rustic weddings and robbers (the Harnasie).

In this latest recording, again by Chandos Records, Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, in an interpretation which shows the BBC SO fulfilling their role as one of Europe’s best ensembles for the music which straddles the end of romanticism and the beginning of modernism. It seems almost superfluous to comment upon the quality of sound which you find on Chandos productions, but on this new disc, the attention to detail and the ‘colours’ of the music have a pinpoint accuracy and reality which I find on very few CD labels.

Everest Records, an American company, was at the forefront of high-quality, high-fidelity analogue tape recordings in the 1950s and ‘60s. Here we find clarity of a different kind: music that appears in the full light of day, but in a sort of audio Technicolor (if one can describe sounds in this way). State-of-the-art microphones must have been placed very close to the orchestra in Everest’s stunning 1959 issue of Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony (the musicians embarking on the recording just hours after the announcement of the composer’s death). The gloomy flugelhorns of this austere, unusual and unsually-scored symphony sound as though they have arisen from a fog in a Wessex landscape – a later menacing march and sidedrum tattoo evoking a legend of a ghostly drummer who inhabited Salisbury Plain. So dry and clear is the recording, that one can almost see the glint of metal in the cymbal clashes, and feel the rasp of the London Philharmonic’s trumpets. Sir Adrian Boult is the conductor.

The ‘fill-up’ work, if indeed a 35-minute work can be called that, is Malcolm Arnold’s rarely-played Third Symphony; a panoply of ideas from one of British music’s most original and quirky voices. And yet, in the Third’s opening – with its sense of remote landscapes – there are echoes of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, in particular, the eerie, troubled ‘warning’ sounds of brass fanfares – a signature-tune, as it were, at which Britten excelled. There is something, Waltonian, too, here and there in the score – but above all, this is Malcolm Arnold painting and developing his tunes, phrases, and magnificent ideas, such as the great and emotional theme which rises up at the height of the middle movement. Symphonic writing at its best, and a reminder of Arnold’s skills as a composer of cinematic scores. And to make this recording even more of an authentic experience, the LPO plays under the baton of the composer.

STUART MILLSON is the QR‘s Classical Music Editor

CD details

Chandos – Prokofiev, complete works for violin. CHAN 10787(2)

Chandos – Szymanowski, Harnasie. CHSA 5123

Everest – Vaughan Williams and Arnold. EVC 9001






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