PROKOFIEV: Le Pas d'Acier, Op. 41. L'enfant prodigue, Op. 46.
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Michail Jurowski, cond.
cpo 999 974 (F) (DDD) TT: 73:08
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Steel and repentance. Prokofiev composed both Le Pas d' Acier and L'
enfant prodigue for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. They stand among
his last works composed in the West. One could argue (and, of course,
writers indeed have) that both show Prokofiev's state of mind at the
time as at least considering a return to Russia, a step he finally took
in 1931. Curiously, Prokofiev, who fled the Revolution, had been viewed
in the West as representative of Soviet Man and Artist, long before he
actually became one. We tend to forget the Modernist, experimental period
of Soviet art -- Constructivism, Shostakovich's first symphony, the poet
Osip Mandelshtam -- before the so-called Soviet Realism (not particularly
realistic, by the way) crackdown under Stalin.
Le Pas d' Acier, as well as items like the second through fourth symphonies,
was one of those works which contributed to Prokofiev's revolutionary
artistic and political image. The title -- literally, "the steel
step," or more poetically "the steel dance" (not "steal," as
rendered throughout the CD liner notes) -- refers to a rather outlandish
plot in which a capitalist cesspool is transformed into a workers' technological
paradise. This may be one reason why the ballet hasn't had too many performances,
despite terrific music. Ironically, critics in the West liked the ballet
more than the Soviets did. Soviet writers severely criticized Prokofiev's
plot as ignorant of the true nature of the People's Socialism. Of course,
Soviet music critics were by and large of necessity required to babble
whatever nonsense the political powers told them to, and their writings
today would seem hilariously stupid, if not for the fact that they caused
At any rate, Prokofiev's music is filled with percussive blows, suggestive
of machinery. Still, it's Prokofiev, one of the great melodists of the
previous century. Lyrical melody abounds, and a good deal of the harsher
stuff reminds me of the Capulet and Montague music from the much later
Romeo and Juliet. This suggests that Prokofiev's much-discussed simplification
of style during his Soviet period was always and much less a part of
his musical nature than generally thought, or that the simplification
had occurred years before Prokofiev returned to Russia, perhaps prodded
by Stravinsky and Les Six. Prokofiev, after all, made Paris his home
base during the Twenties. Undoubtedly, he knew the other music written
there. Nevertheless, the composer always sings in his own, fascinating
way. You don't mistake Prokofiev for Milhaud, although occasionally you
hear Milhaud-like sounds and rhythms.
L' enfant prodigue (the prodigal son) retells the Biblical story. For
some strange reason, there was a Twenties fad for Biblical ballets, as
if religion were simply another badge of chic. Incidentally, the liner
notes contain a photo from the original production. Diaghilev aimed to
bring world-class artists together for his productions. Very often, the
designs haven't worn well. The costumes for L' enfant, for example, remind
me of the sperm in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know
Prokofiev stands to some extent apart from the trendiness, investing
his music with rich, human characterization, foreshadowing the late operas,
film scores, and ballets. Unlike Le Pas d' Acier, the music closely follows
the stage action, yet works as music. You don't need to know the plot
or see the dancers in order to enjoy Prokofiev's contribution. Like most
Biblical stories, the plot is rather stark, free of detail. This allows
the re-teller to contribute something of his own understanding to the
situation portrayed. Again, Prokofiev's strength here lies in characterization.
He can sketch a fairly complex father -- loving and irresolute -- in
a few measures. However, his portrait of the son, especially the remorseful
son, is fairly extended and psychologically detailed. The music, extraordinarily
beautiful, achieves the richness and singing quality of the balcony scene
in Romeo and Juliet, although it runs much shorter.
Jurowski and the Colognials do a very nice job, especially sensitive
and emotionally flexible in L' enfant. They play the music as if they
love it. The recorded sound is charming, aiming for a "real-hall" effect.
S.G.S. (April 2005)