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

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 suffering.

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 About Sex.

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)