Prokofiev: Symphonies 2 & 4 (second version) - Gaffigan

Prokofiev: Symphonies 2 & 4 (second version) - Gaffigan

Challenge Classics  CC 72779

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Prokofiev: Symphonies 2 & 4

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)

The Dutch composer, music journalist and novelist Elmer Schönberger once described the Second Symphony as a sub-genre – of a primarily psychological nature, albeit with considerable stylistic consequences: in a first symphony, a composer will more or less reflect the traditions from which he comes, and in a second he will deliberately break away from them. Prokofiev’s Second, composed eight years after the First, appears to be a defiant ode to the modern era, witnessed by the layers of mechanically persistent rhythms, expressionist harmonies, ostensibly unfathomable forms and its very expansive take on tonality. The work was premiered in Paris in 1925, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky.

Prokofiev decided to revise his Fourth Symphony, Op. 47, after the successful premieres of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (in January 1945 and December 1947 respectively). The original four movements remained largely intact, but the changes say a great deal about his style at that point. The first alteration was to insert or expand some passages that were predominantly reflective, with a strong emphasis on melody. Another example is the attempt to align the scale more closely with what was required by Social Realism, in which the neo-classical is overlaid with a considerable dose of heroism and sometimes even bombast. The association of Op. 112 with Social Realism subsequently proved to be an obstacle to its acceptance in the West.

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Reviews (1)

Review by Adrian Quanjer - March 7, 2018

It’s done. It took some time; the first recording in this cycle (number 7) dates from 2012, and the final one (number 2) from 2016. One wonders why Challenge Classics kept things for so long under wraps. There is absolutely nothing to be shy about. On the contrary. Looking back one might say that we have here a cycle that breaks many barriers. Who would, at the outset, have thought that James Gaffigan was the right choice for this unique enterprise? Wouldn’t a Russian conductor have been in a better position to capture the essence of Prokofiev’s symphonic output?

One might ask: How Russian was Prokofiev’s music anyway? Ukrainian born and a regular visitor to the Western World, he choose to exile himself for 18 years, starting in Japan (coming from Vladivostok), on to San Francisco, New York, then London, Paris …the usual; marrying a Franco-Polonaise of Spanish origin. Symphonies 2, 3 and 4 were composed during this period.

The beauty of this final volume is that it gives in a nutshell an overview of Prokofiev’s compositional life. Setting apart the first, classical symphony, the second is typical for a young composer carving out a place under the sun; to distinguish himself from the rest, most notably from someone with a similar, Russian background, Igor Stravinsky, who was able to attract so much attention; good or bad. The 1925 premiere of the second in Paris was a disaster. And the tragic was that no one talked about it ever after. A third symphony followed. Premiered in Paris in 1929. No great success either.

Disappointed? Possibly. The liner notes say that he bought a home in Moscow in 1933 and returned to his homeland to settle there in 1936. This in essence being correct, there is a different tale, too: Lured to the homeland by the Soviet régime with the promise of an apartment in Moscow, a car and a Dacha. A reward for being the Russian musical Ambassador to Paris? In his baggage was the score of the fourth symphony, which, in his initial form, was sidelined to rehearsals in a smaller hall in Brussels as The Great Igor occupied the main hall rehearsing his Symphonie of Psalms. The symphony was seen as ‘not very original’ and too ‘conformist’.

Once back in Russia he stayed away from politics, devoted much time to composing, having to abide by official ‘guidelines’. His fifth symphony was a big success and found him recognition as one of the great composers of Russia (until he, too, fell from grace). Had he become a musical servant to his masters? The revised version of his fourth symphony, as played on this final volume, only 6 years before his death, suggest so much. It adds a layer of heroism of the Soviet People.

I’ve been dwelling on these elements as they have, in my view, a bearing on the way Prokofiev’s symphonic oeuvre should be interpreted. Some critics believe that Gaffigan is too soft. I see it differently. Prokofiev is no Shostakovich. It is said, and so do I, that many master pieces have been written under duress. It goes maybe too far to say that an artist must always suffer, but oppression can bring out the best. On the other hand, it is also true that a great artist can conform to superior demands and still be exceptional. Bach is a shining example.

In a previous review I said: “that I was much impressed by the way this young American conductor was able to lend these symphonies such a surprising degree of musical value” and that “this second volume does not only confirm my first impression, it reinforces my believe that James Gaffigan is one of the more prominent young conductors of our time. “ It all holds true for the final volume.

The would be ‘avant-garde’ style of the second symphony is projected by Gaffigan in a way making the listener aware of the kind of intellectual eagerness from a young composer obsessed by the mechanics of industrial growth and possibly foreshadowing large scale war preparations, utterly misunderstood in the new musical world, ticking all the wrong boxes. Gaffigan, with the support of an excellent Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra ‘undresses’ the symphony, laying clinically and forcefully bare its intrinsic ‘neither-nor’ attempts to become a composer of note, especially in the assorted mixture of theme and variations, following the unsettling first movement. All in sharp contrast to Gaffigan’s masterly account of the heroic polish and subtle lyrical schmaltz of the fourth in its second reading.

Not only is Gaffigan a gifted conductor, he demonstrates a special feeling for Prokofiev, putting the symphonies in a realistic, time-less new light, giving the music the emotional power it merits, shunning unnecessary melodramatic accents, never becoming grotesque, while lifting out all the universal lyrical beauty they encompass and, most of all, the natural and true to type manner they deserve to be heard.

The sound quality is beyond reproach, bringing out detail and pure definition. Taking sound, sense and soul together, and without denying virtues and accolades to others, this set is, now completed, for me the one to have.

Normandy, France

Copyright © 2018 Adrian Quanjer and


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Comments (1)

Comment by hiredfox - March 8, 2018 (1 of 1)

Gaffigan's survey has been consistently excellent and it is encouraging to read from Adrian's review that his previous high standards have been maintained. The Second Symphony is unquestionably challenging for listeners and understandably has never been a popular concert hall work for programmers. Time has not helped and at best one might consider this purchase as necessary only for completeness. The revised Fourth will be seen by some as being slightly more palatable than the original version.

Gaffigan is not first choice although maybe on SACD but both Neemi Jaarvi's 1980's survey with the RSNO and the recent Karabits survey on RBCD with the BSO have set the bar and will be hard to beat. Both Prokofiev and Karabits emanate from Kiev, Ukraine which may have some bearing on interpretation of this man's music..