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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 / The Year 1941
Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Symphony No.5 in B Flat Major, Op. 100
The Year 1941, Op. 90
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in the United States of America was at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By 1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully mounted in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort well with the political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular reference now to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
The fifth of Prokofiev's seven symphonies was written in 1944, culminating, as he suggested, a long period in his creative life. The Fourth Symphony, which uses material from the ballet The Prodigal Son, had been completed in 1930. The new work, which bears some resemblance in thematic material to the Flute sonata of the previous year, is in four movements, grandiose and unified in conception. It is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, to which piccolo, cor anglais, piccolo clarinet and bass clarinet, with contra-bassoon, are added. There is a conventional bass section of three trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba and a percussion section that includes timpani, triangle, cymbals, wood-blocks, snare-drum, tambourine, bass drum and gong. Piano and harp are used and there is the usual string section. The first movement couples considerable strength with unexpected twists of melody that are highly characteristic of the composer. The strong principal theme is heard at once, entrusted to flutes and bassoons, before passing top the strings and swelling gradually in importance, with a second theme announced by flute and oboe. This grandiose opening to a symphony that has no extra-musical programme to it is followed by a scherzo that has an equally characteristic first melody played by the clarinet over a constant accompanying pattern provided initially by the first violins, material at one time intended for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The trio section has a touch of that other condemned formalist Khachaturian about it, while the scherzo material returns in more sinister form, now a danse macabre. The Adagio is a movement of sustained lyricism, with a fiercely dramatic middle section, followed by a return to the opening serenity of the movement. The finale, with its initial tranquil reminiscence of the opening of the symphony in its introduction, proceeds to an overtly cheerful principal theme, ushered in by a viola accompaniment figure, with a more lyrical second subject. There is a strong Russian element, particularly in a new melody in the basses. The re-appearance of the principal thematic material brings the work to an ebullient and triumphant close.
Russia's Great Patriotic War began with the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, at a time when Prokofiev had been considering again his projected opera on Tolstoy's War and Peace. With other artists, including his friend Myaskovsky, he was evacuated to Nalchik in the Northern Caucasus. In July he started work on a symphonic suite The Year 1941 which he had completed by November. The work failed to please when it was first performed in 1943 in Moscow and was criticized also by Shostakovich, who found the material insufficiently developed, while official critics found that the music did not match the momentous events of the war. The Year 1941, which even Myaskovsky had not liked, was not published. Prokofiev later made use of some of the score for a film, Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, known under several different names in the present century , has long had a special relationship with the music of Prokofiev. Once his international reputation was established, he often returned to his native Ukraine, whether as soloist or conductor or as a musician whose works formed the principal repertoire of a concert. There are those who still recall his return in 1927 as an accomplished composer, now sitting in the audience and listening to young David Oistrakh perform his Violin Concerto No.1 for the first time. So upset was the composer by what he heard that he immediately went on stage, when the work was finished, and spent several hours sitting at the orchestra piano, criticizing the minutest details of the performance by both soloist and orchestra. In spite of this, Prokofiev returned again to Kiev until the circumstances of the Second World War and his final illness prevented him from doing so. Nevertheless musicians who were responsible for the first performances of many of Prokofiev's works during the final ten years of his life often travelled to Kiev to work with the orchestra. Mravinsky came with the Sixth Symphony, as did Samosoud with the Seventh. Other conductors and soloists involved in first performances of music by Prokofiev and who worked with the Kiev orchestra include Gauk, Malko, Neuhaus, Oistrakh, Rachlin, Richter and Rozhdestvensky.
The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Theodore Kuchar have continued the long association with the orchestral works of Prokofiev both in concert in Kiev and on tour. In addition to recording the complete cycle of Prokofiev symphonies, the orchestra has given the first performance in Kiev of a number of works by the composer that remained rarely performed under the Soviet régime as a result of their "Western" origins, works that include the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies and the ballets The Prodigal Son and On the Dnieper , all of which have subsequently been recorded for Naxos.
The Ukrainian conductor Theodore Kuchar is currently artistic director and principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, continuing an association that began in 1992 with his appointment as principal guest conductor of the then Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra. He is also artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, a position he has held since 1990. His professional career began as a principal violist in leading orchestras of Cleveland and Helsinki, followed by appearances as a soloist and chamber musician in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and the former Soviet Union. In 1980, at the age of twenty, Theodore Kuchar was awarded the Boston Symphony Orchestra Paul Fromm Fellowship, allowing study at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein, Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa and André Previn. After international appearances as a guest conductor, he was appointed, soon after his Australian début in 1987, music director of the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra in Brisbane, while also serving until 1993 as music director of the West Australian Ballet in Perth. In 1989 he was awarded a bronze medal by the Finnish government for services to Finnish music, while in 1994 he played in the world première of Penderecki's String Trio in New York. His recordings as a conductor include a number of important works for Naxos and Marco Polo, among which his recording of the second and third symphonies of Lyatoshynsky for Marco Polo was declared International Record of the Year in 1994 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Under his direction the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine has become one of the most frequently recorded of the former Soviet Union, with recordings of the complete symphonies of Kalinnikov and Prokofiev, in addition to those of Lyatoshynsky and of major works by de Bériot, Dvorák, Glazunov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Shchedrin, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, as well as the symphonies and orchestral works of Ukraine's leading contemporary symphonist, Yevhen Stankovytch.
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PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 / The Year 1941