Kitchen Sink of the Week #2: Prokofiev’s Production Number

Kitchen Sink of the Week #2: Prokofiev's Production NumberProkofiev: Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, &c.
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Neeme Järvi, conductor
Chandos 10537 X

For me, anyway, the Soviet patriotic cantata is a genre that exercised a fascination entirely out of proportion to its quality, and I pored through many a record bin back in the vinyl age searching out EMI-Angel/Melodiya LPs, those curious east-west co-issues, simultaneously propaganda and exotic postcard. Like French revolutionary cantatas, Soviet cantatas were marked largely by bombast, banal but earworm-hopeful tunes, and a noted lack of any sort of emotional complexity. The most common compliment you could give one was that it was “surprisingly good.” (Shostakovich’s “The Song of the Forests” was surprisingly good. Kabalevsky’s “Requiem”—in its flashy metallic gold sleeve cover—was surprisingly good.)

There was one, though, that really was good, that was the ultimate example, the Soviet cantata version of a cult classic, and that was Sergey Prokofiev’s “Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution.” Composed in 1936-37 on texts by (might as well go straight to the source) Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, the piece proved too crazy for the powers that be, and wasn’t premiered until 1966, after Prokofiev’s death—and then, only with the Stalin-texted movements cut out, a reflection of the Soviet politics of the time. A recording of that version, conducted by Kiril Kondrashin, made the Angel/Melodiya cut, and the music’s wildness was on its way to its Western semi-fame.

This CD is a re-release of the 1992 album on which the excised Stalin movements were recorded for the first time, revealing Prokofiev’s creation as a 46-minute compendium of, seemingly, everything he knew how to do. There’s the avant-garde Prokofiev, dropping percussion hits like bombs, following up with stabbing chords and knife-twisting dissonance (much of the piece could be the soundtrack to the greatest action-horror movie ever—which, in a way, it was). There’s Prokofiev the lyrical—the big tune he layers over the muttering philosophers in the second movement is one of his best, effortlessly soaring, while the victory speech following the revolution is deliriously lush. And then there’s Prokofiev the provocateur: the revolution itself whips up a choreographed chaos to rival DeMille.

But the skill with which he manages all this spectacle is constantly impressive and inventive. Juggling choirs, orchestra, military band, Prokofiev never drops a ball, smooth all the way. By the time the accordion band has joined the fray (a brilliant entrance), and a speaker has finished shouting a Lenin speech through a megaphone, Prokofiev deploys just enough to tip the whole tableau over the top: a single wail on a siren, superbly, efficiently effective. In fact, the whole thing is so dazzlingly crafted, so far above the usual run-of-the-mill patriotic-cantata hackwork, that one wonders if Prokofiev was either more patriotic than we think, or maybe less—pouring the best of his talent into an ironically seductive vision of the birth of Soviet Russia. One can certainly hear why Soviet officials would have given the work a polite “no thanks”—this is hardly well-behaved propaganda. But the genius of the piece is that, if it is out to subvert, it doesn’t do so by sabotage, but by simply amplifying the rhetoric to the point that it’s disorientingly surreal.

Neeme Järvi leads the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus in a performance that’s crisp, with focused details—it comes at some expense to expanse, but the ability to hear all of Prokofiev’s layers, up and down, is ample reward. (He scores with a little stunt-casting as well, getting the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a leading figure during the Soviet regime, to contribute a cameo as the megaphone-wielding Lenin.) The disc is filled out with excerpts from the ballet “The Stone Flower,” fine enough Prokofiev, but a little pedestrian after the hallucinatory trip of the “Cantata,” which is the real draw. It’s odd to call a commemoration of a violent revolution in support of a disastrously failed ideology entertaining, but Prokofiev knew how to work the masses; the “Cantata” is entertaining as (perhaps intentionally) hell.

Matthew Guerrieri is a composer, pianist, and writer whose music has been called ”gorgeous” by the New York Times. He writes regularly on music for the Boston Globe, and his articles have ...read more

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