The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s intriguing new Prokofiev series is entitled “Man of the People?” and the enigma is all in the question mark. Beginning at the end with the last of his symphonies, the 7th, was far from arbitrary. This is a piece about enchantment where childhood fairy-tales are revisited from an adulthood of compromised dreams and disillusionment. As with so much in Prokofiev, nothing is quite as it seems.
In his music for the screen satire Lieutenant Kijé which kicked off the series under the relaxed, if not to say understated, baton of Alexander Vedernikov, the juxtaposition of the magical (a poetic “last post” trumpeter ear-stretchingly distant here in the Festival Hall) and the wrily grotesque (moments of earthy bitonality at the ficticious Kijé’s burial) is all part and parcel of the language of a composer who loves to keep an audience on its toes – to engage and then to disorientate. Vedernikov was very laid-back with Kijé, a more genial, throw-away approach than we sometimes hear with bass drum thwacks and discordant raspberries from the brass like cartoonish exclamations and the earthy colourations realised with an air of total “normality”.
The earlier version of what later became the Symphony-Concerto in E minor for cello and orchestra – known simply as the Cello Concerto Op.58 – is the flip side of the Prokofiev coin and a hard piece to love. With dizzying difficulty for the cello soloist – difficulty which never really repays him or his audience – this is Prokofiev in belligerently experimental mode, dry and perplexing and increasingly obtuse. And with no disrespect to Danjulo Ishizaka, who bravely toughed it out, it requires a soloist of far bigger and more audacious personality to sustain the intrigue. And Prokofiev surely knew – hence the later revision.
But then “once upon a time” there were rapt and rangy themes that spoke of lofty romances in far off kingdoms. The 7th Symphony re-enters the nursery, re-opens the story books, and seems to revisit the enchanted and balletic world of the composer’s Cinderella. But an underlying regret now enters the equation – and Vedernikov caught it with laudable understatement with some beautiful pale colours from all departments of the LPO. But more puzzling was a certain leisureliness and slackness, for instance, in the increasingly manic but slow to ignite waltz of the second movement. One could not help but think of how Jurowski might have grasped the same nettle. The enigma continues.