Soviet composers: a few high notes Study in contrasts.


The two greatest Soviet composers did not like each other. Prokofiev resented Shostakovich's early successes, and Shostakovich thought Prokofiev superficial, facile and a mediocre orchestrator.

Their reputations have been a study in contrasts. In the war years and immediately afterward, the two composers were equally popular and bracketed together in much the way that Bruckner and Mahler or Debussy and Ravel were. But Prokofiev had the good fortune to die in 1953 on the day that Stalin did and was remembered chiefly as someone who suffered through the dictator's brutal handcuffing of -- and his often murderous instincts toward -- creative artists; the younger Shostakovich lived until 1975, turning out major work after work year after year. Because he was so revered a figure in the Soviet Union, he was seen in the West -- though, actually, only on this side of the Atlantic -- as someone who had made a suspicious peace with his Communist bosses, and who wrote potboilers that prostituted his talent. Pieces like Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony remained in the repertory, but even greater works like the Eighth and Tenth Symphonies were performed much less frequently, often by visiting Russian orchestras.

But Shostakovich's reputation was on the rise by the time of his death in 1975. Audiences were entering a romantic age -- the popularity of the symphonies of Mahler was soaring -- and the works of Shostakovich, with their tormented cores barely

contained by savagely ironic surfaces, seemed tailor-made for the age. The publication of Solomon Volkov's disputed "Testimony" in 1979 did not hurt Shostakovich's reputation. That much talked-about book may or may not have been a transcript of Volkov's conversations with the composer, but it presented a sympathetic picture of Shostakovich as a witness of conscience whose music was an agony-filled response to Soviet horrors.

While Shostakovich's stock went up, Prokofiev's went down. In the years after World War II, pianists fell over one another to play the piano sonatas and the concertos, and orchestras to play the Symphony No. 5. But while a good deal of his music is still popular -- the Symphony No. 5, the "Lt. Kije Suite," the suites from "Romeo and Juliet" and the Third Piano Concerto -- there's no doubt that Prokofiev is in eclipse. Last year almost no attention was paid to the centennial of his birth, and in the '70s and '80s record companies seemed to pay ever less attention to him. Some of the lack of interest seems justified. Prokofiev is a great composer, but with exceptions -- like the cantata he worked from his score for Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" and the music for the ballet, "Romeo and Juliet" -- there is often more skill than soul in his music. Prokofiev is at his most affecting with programmatic music or when he's telling a story. In more purely formal music he seems less able than Shostakovich (or perhaps merely less interested) in constructing musical narratives that explore what the poet Yeats called "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

But there does seem to be more Prokofiev on records right now than at any time in the last few years. Part of the reason is that the end of the Cold War has resulted in a freedom to travel that has made Russian musicians -- to whom the music of Prokofiev is standard repertory -- a more important presence in the international musical landscape than at any time since the Russian Revolution.

There's a new set of the five Prokofiev piano concertos by the pianist Victoria Postnikova and her conductor-husband Gennadi Rozhdestvensky on the Russian Melodiya label. Putting aside the fact that these two CDs do not even mention the name of the orchestra (it's probably what used to be called the USSR Radio Symphony) and the fact that the scanty program notes are only in Russian, this set is impossible to recommend. Postnikova was once a formidable talent, but in the last few years her performances have become impossibly slow and mannered. Just compare the leaden way she performs the lightning-quick scherzo of the Second Concerto to Horacio Gutierrez' mercurial performance with Neeme Jarvi and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Chandos). If you must have all the Prokofiev concertos, invest in the mid-priced Vladimir Ashkenazy-Andre Previn set (London). In addition to the Gutierrez-Jarvi performances of Nos. 2 and 3, there are several individual outstanding Prokofiev concerto performances. One of the best is a recently reissued William Kapell performance (RCA Gold Seal) from 1949. This incredible, budget-priced record -- it belongs in every library with pretensions to historical inclusiveness -- also features the most sizzling performances ever set down of Khatchaturian's Piano Concerto and Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz."

Once upon a time, Prokofiev's "War" sonatas (Nos. 6-8) -- so called because they were written during World War II and seemed to refer to the brutality and tragedy of that conflict -- were considered among the best piano sonatas since those of Beethoven. Now, after years of relative neglect, they seem to be making a comeback. The British pianist Peter Donohoe gets all three on a single CD (EMI), and the Irish pianist Barry Douglas includes No. 7 along with No. 2 and several shorter pieces on what promises to be the first volume in a complete set on the RCA label. Douglas is the more talented and virtuosic of the two, but both pianists -- particularly Donohoe -- end up sounding clinical. Compare Donohoe's bloodless performance of No. 6 with a recently issued "pirate" taken from a 1966 radio broadcast by Sviatoslav Richter (Ermitage). Richter lunges at the pedal, strikes the keyboard with a closed fist and catches the obsessive rhythmic drive and the heartbreak of this juggernaut of piano sonatas in breathtaking fashion. This heroic performance -- in very good sound, by the way -- is coupled with superb performances of music by Brahms and Weber.

Avoid Riccardo Muti's performance of the Symphony No. 5 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Readers should bear in mind that I'm not a fan of Muti's, but what I hear here are a lot of details and not much in the way of sweep. In this angular music, Muti seems merely flat-footed, and his orchestra, while it plays the notes superbly, just doesn't seem to care. A much better performance

by a conductor and orchestra who identify closely with the music is Yuri Temirkanov's with the St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic (RCA Victor). Temirkanov makes the strongest possible case for the brooding lyricism of the piece, superbly points up the jazzy rhythms of the scherzo and does magnificently at capturing the frenzied Jovian thrust of the finale. It's coupled with a good-humored account of the popular "Lt. Kije Suite."

Another fine "Kije" suite comes from Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (London). But this recording is hard to recommend because the main work on the record, "Alexander Nevsky," receives a lackluster reading. Dutoit -- who can be a very elegant interpreter of Russian music -- is simply too elegant here. His "Battle on the Ice" just doesn't get bloody and muddy enough. A terrific new recording of this piece is Kurt Masur's with the Leipzig Gewandhaus (Teldec). Masur's reputation as a stolid German kapellmeister has more to do with ethnic misperceptions than with reality. He can be a volatile interpreter, and he's at his very best here. The coupling is an appropriately savage reading of the "Scythian Suite."

One of the greatest of Shostakovich's symphonies, the Tenth, is getting ever more popular -- deservedly. The first movement -- almost 25 minutes of doom and gloom that takes a listener deep into the darkness of the 20th century -- is followed by a second movement scherzo, a musical portrait of Stalin, that ranks among the the most brutal and exciting pieces ever written.

Unfortunately, the new recording that will get the most attention is the worst. It's by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (London), and it stinks. The sound is terrible -- much too dry -- and the conductor does not understand Shostakovich's idiom. The first movement is too lightweight and not nearly brooding enough -- there's too much articulation of individual notes and no sense of the music's gigantic descending curve. And the scherzo -- taken too slowly -- makes this horrific music sound about as terrifying as the music in Saturday morning cartoons.

A recording that has superb sound is James DePreist's account with the Helsinki Philharmonic (Delos). But it's marred by faulty wind playing and by an interpretive point of view that isn't scorching enough. Mstislav Rostropovich does better with the London Symphony (Teldec) -- particularly with the first movement. But the orchestra sounds a little shrill, and sometimes one gets the impression that Rostropovich has been living with this music so long that he has personalized it in ways that sound mannered.

But there is another new reading -- by Ashkenazy, this time as a conductor, and the Royal Philharmonic (London) -- that belongs in every library, even those that already possess the splendid recordings of Karajan (particularly his 1966 account), Haitink and Mitropoulos. The sound is breathtaking and so is the interpretation. The first movement is searing in its emotional intensity, the scherzo stalks the listener with the inevitability of a tyrannosaur, the line of the difficult-to-sustain third movement never sags, and the piece ends in a blaze of excitement that never eschews a sense -- as most performances do -- that this is still deeply troubling music.

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