Soviet composers: a few high notes Study in contrasts.

May 03, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The two greatest Soviet composers did not like each other. Prokofiev resented Shostakovich's early successes, and Shostakovich thought Prokofiev superficial, facile and a mediocre orchestrator.

Their reputations have been a study in contrasts. In the war years and immediately afterward, the two composers were equally popular and bracketed together in much the way that Bruckner and Mahler or Debussy and Ravel were. But Prokofiev had the good fortune to die in 1953 on the day that Stalin did and was remembered chiefly as someone who suffered through the dictator's brutal handcuffing of -- and his often murderous instincts toward -- creative artists; the younger Shostakovich lived until 1975, turning out major work after work year after year. Because he was so revered a figure in the Soviet Union, he was seen in the West -- though, actually, only on this side of the Atlantic -- as someone who had made a suspicious peace with his Communist bosses, and who wrote potboilers that prostituted his talent. Pieces like Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony remained in the repertory, but even greater works like the Eighth and Tenth Symphonies were performed much less frequently, often by visiting Russian orchestras.

But Shostakovich's reputation was on the rise by the time of his death in 1975. Audiences were entering a romantic age -- the popularity of the symphonies of Mahler was soaring -- and the works of Shostakovich, with their tormented cores barely

contained by savagely ironic surfaces, seemed tailor-made for the age. The publication of Solomon Volkov's disputed "Testimony" in 1979 did not hurt Shostakovich's reputation. That much talked-about book may or may not have been a transcript of Volkov's conversations with the composer, but it presented a sympathetic picture of Shostakovich as a witness of conscience whose music was an agony-filled response to Soviet horrors.

While Shostakovich's stock went up, Prokofiev's went down. In the years after World War II, pianists fell over one another to play the piano sonatas and the concertos, and orchestras to play the Symphony No. 5. But while a good deal of his music is still popular -- the Symphony No. 5, the "Lt. Kije Suite," the suites from "Romeo and Juliet" and the Third Piano Concerto -- there's no doubt that Prokofiev is in eclipse. Last year almost no attention was paid to the centennial of his birth, and in the '70s and '80s record companies seemed to pay ever less attention to him. Some of the lack of interest seems justified. Prokofiev is a great composer, but with exceptions -- like the cantata he worked from his score for Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" and the music for the ballet, "Romeo and Juliet" -- there is often more skill than soul in his music. Prokofiev is at his most affecting with programmatic music or when he's telling a story. In more purely formal music he seems less able than Shostakovich (or perhaps merely less interested) in constructing musical narratives that explore what the poet Yeats called "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

But there does seem to be more Prokofiev on records right now than at any time in the last few years. Part of the reason is that the end of the Cold War has resulted in a freedom to travel that has made Russian musicians -- to whom the music of Prokofiev is standard repertory -- a more important presence in the international musical landscape than at any time since the Russian Revolution.

There's a new set of the five Prokofiev piano concertos by the pianist Victoria Postnikova and her conductor-husband Gennadi Rozhdestvensky on the Russian Melodiya label. Putting aside the fact that these two CDs do not even mention the name of the orchestra (it's probably what used to be called the USSR Radio Symphony) and the fact that the scanty program notes are only in Russian, this set is impossible to recommend. Postnikova was once a formidable talent, but in the last few years her performances have become impossibly slow and mannered. Just compare the leaden way she performs the lightning-quick scherzo of the Second Concerto to Horacio Gutierrez' mercurial performance with Neeme Jarvi and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Chandos). If you must have all the Prokofiev concertos, invest in the mid-priced Vladimir Ashkenazy-Andre Previn set (London). In addition to the Gutierrez-Jarvi performances of Nos. 2 and 3, there are several individual outstanding Prokofiev concerto performances. One of the best is a recently reissued William Kapell performance (RCA Gold Seal) from 1949. This incredible, budget-priced record -- it belongs in every library with pretensions to historical inclusiveness -- also features the most sizzling performances ever set down of Khatchaturian's Piano Concerto and Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz."

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