Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Meat and poison department

That was the headline of my favourite feature of the old Royal Festival Hall monthly programme leaflets. In this the programme author (possibly the renowned general manager, Mr T.E.Bean?) collected reviews of recent concerts from the music critics of the day, as published in the daily or weekly press. Quite often one felt that the impressions of a piece or its performance were gained from totally different concerts.

The memory came back when I read "All or Nothing" by John Amis some time ago. Obviously to like a composer does not mean that you have to accept every single thing that he has written. Clearly we both admire Prokoviev, and the expert opinion of Mr Amis (Heldentenor manqué) is worth much more than mine, but it is remarkable how differently we feel about the piece in tonight's Prom, the sixth symphony.

To me, the Prokoviev's sixth comes from the same cast of mind as two others: Vaughan Williams' and Tchaikovsky's. There is the same feeling of nostalgia, or regret for times past: what Antony Hopkins calls a "yearning" quality. In the last movement, he also echoes Tchaikovsky's empty bravado. In addition, there may even be an element of self-mockery. Prokoviev was criticised in his days as a Young Turk for his "motoric" rhythms. It is possible to hear both a clock and a train in this piece.

It follows that I see this as a substantive work, not something cobbled together from pieces rescued from a bottom drawer. Prokoviev must have "meant" it. He would hardly have risked such a pessimistic work in the face of Stalin and his cultural censors otherwise. (I agree with Mr Amis about the socialist realist hack-work nature of much of the other stuff that he produced during the period.) Nothing else from his second Russian period contained discords as the sixth does - well, apart from the music associated with the warring families in "Romeo and Juliet", but this was clearly done for effect.

I must take the opportunity to register my objection to Mr Amis's criticisms of the other symphonies. Yes, the fourth comprises material rescued from "Le Fils Prodigue", but it is worth rescuing. The third/Fiery Angel is not tuneless; it has one great long melody. I wonder if the outrageous nature of the opera has coloured his view? There is nothing wrong with recasting music rejected from other media in symphonic form. I cite again RVW, who reused music from films, the masque "Job" and the opera "Pilgrim's Progress", only slightly altered, in his symphonies.

Perhaps my view in turn is coloured by the fact that the third, fourth and sixth symphonies and the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet music formed the seed of my LP collection. I collected these Soviet MK recordings, in plain sleeves, at a price my then clerical officer's salary could stretch to, from Gamages' closing-down sale in the 1960s. I admit to a soft spot for them. Some time I must get around to transferring them to a digital medium.

Around that same time, I bought my first full-price LP, Oistrakh playing the Bruch and Prokoviev violin concerto. I see that the latter is coming up in the Prom season: next Wednesday, in fact. I think this is another work which Mr Amis and I can agree on to enjoy.

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