This present PentaTone Classics Super Audio CD, featuring Vladimir Jurowski and the Russian National Orchestra, follows the familiar pattern of coupling a chestnut (the Fifth) with a rare precious crumb, Prokofiev’s 1945 Ode to the End of the War, presumably to render the rarity easier to sell or swallow. This patronising technique is now standard order in concert programming, where one is “rewarded” with a Brahms Second for having the stamina to endure, say, that clangorous new percussion concerto by a contemporary newcomer. But one grows accustomed to condescension and mouldy rewards, and grateful for the nourishing crumbs – so let’s sift through the Fifth, and savour the Ode.
Few movements in the symphonic literature propose more daunting cadences than the Andante of Prokofiev’s Fifth. Its breadth of movement is at once un-rhythmic and ever-thrusting, evincing an “overwhelming... purposiveness” (in the words of Franz Steiger’s liner notes) that layers a slow, inevitable soar upwards with anxious undercurrents unable to stave off a victorious climax both seismic and meticulously controlled (for Prokofiev, even when cacophonous, is always controlled). Whereas Yoel Levi and Michael Tilson Thomas calculatedly distend the Andante, slowing it to an anguished pathos, Jurowski handles its trajectory at a more moderate pace and with cooler emotions, probably truer to Prokofiev’s own nineteenth century notion of andante, something closer to today’s con moto. But apart from clarity of detail afforded by the Super Audio’s stereophonics – you hear exposed notes in the tuba and piano usually whitewashed in over-compressed studio recordings – little stands out in Jurowski’s first movement, save for an odd brass diminuendo during the climax which grants the cymbal and tam-tam centre stage. One comes away from Jurowski’s rendition remembering only scattered peculiarities of accentuation, not novel insights into a work whose broad sweep has already been limned by Karajan, Slatkin, and countless others.
Nevertheless, in the Allegro marcato accentuation does elicit revelation. After tempi laxer than one finds in Levine’s or even Rostropovich’s second movements, from nowhere Jurowski conjures a shocking climax whose vicious timpani strikes and siren-like horns convert the final measures from a merely logical, prearranged conclusion into an extraordinary catharsis. Laxness creeps into the Adagio, though, and while the central climax wallops appropriately, its final bars are indifferently phrased, and cannot transform the movement’s sombre march into the celestial otherworld ideally betokened by those concluding pluckings of the harp. Jurowski’s sluggish Allegro giocoso, meanwhile, offers little beyond competence and the inherited excitement of a live performance. Its finale, boasting crisply articulated trumpets, is appropriately hell-bent, but as two minutes of tightly controlled chaos fail to compensate for seven prior minutes of slack, humdrum tempi, one begins to long for the pointed, disciplinarian rhythms of a Szell or Temirkanov.
Just as the main attraction of Riccardo Muti’s recording of Prokofiev’s Fifth with the Philadelphia Orchestra was an unexpectedly luxuriant Meeting of the Volga and the Don, so is the raison d’Ítre here Prokofiev’s exotic Ode to the End of the War, a post-war triumphalism previously recorded only by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (on Melodiia), Leonid Nikolaev (on Consonance), and Alexander Titov (on Beaux). The Ode is remarkable not because it, like Zdravista, surpasses the Stalinist aesthetics under which it labours, or because it, like Flourish O Mighty Homeland, evinces furtive Shostakovichian ironies; rather, it is crushing, overwhelming, real music, requiring no apologias and boasting a smashingly percussive finale that outdoes not only that of the contemporaneous Fifth Symphony but much of what Prokofiev was doing in his Parisian years.
Ingeniously scored for winds, brass, contrabasses, percussion, four pianos, and eight harps, the Ode, alternately majestic and rambunctious, is likely to remain enslaved to Stalinist victory aesthetics, or be perceived as the kind of “Socialistic Jubilation Orgy” (in the priceless words of the liner notes) that attended Fascism’s defeat. Jurowski seems intent on undercutting the “orgiastic” nature of the proceedings, however, by taking the introductory brass chorales at a measured and funereal tread, softly intoned. Whereas Rozhdestvensky’s opening trombones and three tubas invigorate and inspire, Jurowski’s soothe and reassure, and threaten to slide into the stodginess of many occasional works for wind band. Like Jurowski’s Fifth, this is a performance marked by dramatic accents rather than epical gestures. We hear the piping of the woodwinds, the eccentric rumblings in the bass of the pianos, and the climactic striking of the bells more clearly than in either the Rozhdestvensky or Titov recordings, but the brass-fuelled blaze is missing.
Jurowski’s milder, post-Soviet approach abets the Ode’s middle section, a gently rocking interlude for harps whose pastoralism is uncommon in Prokofiev’s output. Though Jurowski invests this passage with a placid, nearly Graingeresque air, it retains the meandering, even somnambulistic quality it has in the competing recordings, and goes nowhere quickly. We grow anxious for the ensuing, sparsely scored themes of “joyful reconstruction” to go through their paces, and await the return of the full brass chorales that, when finally joined by timpani, tam-tam, cymbals, bells, and pianos given free reign, culminate in one of Prokofiev’s most awe-inspiring finales. Marked by a thunderous timpani solo which Vadim Shakhov has called “world music’s most complex solo kettledrum part,” the Ode’s finale also represents Prokofiev’s most bracing display of percussion since the Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, and arguably the most inventive percussion writing of his entire career.
While the Ode’s instrumentation makes it impractical for frequent concert use, its eccentricity prompts us to rethink what exactly can be accomplished within the pathologically narrow bounds of Socialist Realism. Acknowledged masterpieces such as Miaskovsky’s 27th Symphony and 13th String Quartet inevitably (if unwittingly) legitimise with their sound workmanship the conservative limits of Socialist-Realist aesthetics. The simultaneous oddness and sincerity of Prokofiev’s Ode, however, challenge how hegemonic sentiments (i.e. nationalism) can be expressed in deviant ways without recourse to the “is it ironic or isn’t it?” arguments typically marshalled to resuscitate suspect artefacts of totalitarian regimes. Indeed, the Ode’s abnormal exuberance could well be more politically subversive than what are now the nearly normative ironies of Shostakovichian despair.
Symphony No. 5 in B flat Op. 100; Ode to the End of the War Op. 105
Russian National Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski
PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 083