How Prokofiev proves he’s the best

How Prokofiev proves he’s the best

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

May 14, 2021

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

I once had an all-night argument with Valery Gergiev about 20th century Russian composers. This was before Gergiev had become a propaganda tool of the Putin regime and his mind was still open to contradiction. I took what was then the mainstream position that Stravinsky was an unassailable genius, a position which, 30 years later, I have abandoned. Gergiev argued vehemently for Prokofiev, first for the operas which he was then reviving at the Mariinsky but even more forcefully for the seven symphonies, of which only the first and fifth had caught on. The rest, from that day to this, are hardly performed and I felt unqualified to judge their merits….

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici.


  • MER says:

    Just to begin with, in terms of gravitas, which is essential, Stravinsky and Shostakovich dwarf Prokofiev.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting.

    In the West, Prokofiev has been underrated because of the large shadow of Stravinsky. Apart from the piano concertos, the symphonies and especially the operas are wonderful. The main difference with Stravinsky is that with Prokofiev, in spite of the dissonances and regular nihilism, and the formal irregularities, there is an underlying wholeness in the musical vision, while with Stravinsky the music is broken inside from ca. 1920 onwards, first with his neoclassicism and then his quasi-atonal modernism. Only when he allows himself to be overtly Russian, the wholeness returns (Symphony of Psalms, Scherzo à la Russe, episodes in Le Baiser de la Fée because of Tchaikovsky). Surely that has everything to do with emigration and financial burdens. Prokofiev returned to the Motherland which prematurely killed him, but he preserved the wholeness.

    • MER says:

      These are pertinent insights to ponder, and I will continue to investigate Prokofiev’s music as has been my custom. I tend to view Stravinsky’s entire oeuvre as one vast utterance informed by timely contrasts. There are works of Prokofiev I love deeply, of course, finding his timbral palette, melodic sense, and sheer gushing rhythmic exuberance utterly charming. My mentor, Leonard Altman, was a cultural representative for the Western Hemisphere to Russia, including meeting Shostakovich and Prokofiev, the latter gifting him an original manuscript. He was of the opinion that Shostakovich was the more purely Russian of the two. My graduate composition teacher, Mel Powell, related how when Stravinsky visited with his fellow composition students under Paul Hindemith at Yale, the Russian master peered into each students eyes while shaking hands as if attempting to detect if any of them had the potential to be a significant rival, the point being that he seemed highly competitive even with fledging composers.

      • Stuart says:

        I tend to view Stravinsky’s entire oeuvre as one vast utterance informed by timely contrasts.

        What does that mean?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Stravinsky as a personality was dependent upon his environment and feared stability, hence his butterfly wandering from one style to the next. But you can always recognize his fingerprints, his taste. That the early ballet works show such inner strength and wholeness, is greatly due to his being a member of the Ballet Russes circle where all parties worked together intensily, and the Russian tradition which kept them together. After WW II all of that changed: the Russian background, the mood of the time, Stravinsky’s need to find a footing in the West and his need to remain ‘avantgarde’.

    • esfir ross says:

      Prokofiev was killed by stroke. It could happened any country. SP enjoyed being #1 composer in Russia and try to serve the regime.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It is well-known that SP suffered hypertension because of extreme stress, caused by his position and being locked-up in the USSR, which can easily be considered the cause of his stroke.

  • CarlD says:

    The review mentions Prokofiev 6; the album cover is for Proko 5. Please explain.

    • microview says:

      NL presumably picked up earlier CD coupling with No 5 to scan. No 7 is Petrenko’s final Oslo recording BTW.

  • Wow, with those glasses on, Prokofiev looks just like Shostakovich!

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    The LSO with Gergiev performed them all at the Barbican in a Prokofiev series.

  • J says:

    The second and fourth symphonies are genius; both versions of the fourth, as well.

  • Carlos Solare says:

    A review of a recording of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that discusses in such detail his Sixth Symphony is nothing if not original.
    I’m reminded of the critic who panned another of Prokofiev’s compositions without even bothering to attend the concert, and thus not knowing that the piece had been taken off the programme at the last minute.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A regular occurrance with critics. There is the story of the critic who entered the hall at the last minute, thus missing the announcement that the opening new piece had been replaced by Beethoven’s Corolian Ouverture, and penning a fiery condemnation of this utterly derivative badly-written work in an utterly outdated style.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    The Prokofiev 7th is one of the most beautiful symphonies of the 20th c. It and the 5th are my two favorite symphonies by Prokofiev (for wildly different reasons).

  • Roy says:

    Prokofiev is I would say the most fun, inventive and melodic, and his sleight-of-hand key changes were unique to him? Only Prokofiev could come up with a gorgeous 12-tone melody (in his first piano concerto)

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Prokofiev’s 6th is surely his greatest symphony. I look forward to hearing this performance.

    As for Stravinsky: surely his status as a genius is unassailable, even if not everything he composed (or said, or did) is unassailable.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    When I first studied music history in the 70s and 80s, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were the two key figures of the 20th century up to that point. Subsequently, Schoenberg’s stock has plummeted (I think the most important German-speaking composer of the 20th century was Richard Strauss.) and I’m with Mr. Lebrecht in thinking that much of Stravinsky’s music has not aged well at all, even if he may be an “unassailable genius.” On the other hand, many of Prokofiev’s scores are perennially fresh: the 3rd piano concerto, Flute Sonata, Visions Fugitives are three marvelous examples that immediately spring to mind.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, the freshness of Prokofiev’s music says something about the part that the intellect plays in writing music.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      The probem with Stravinsky is that there are not many otchestral great things to hear. For me it s like Debussy in a certain way. But Petrouchka in piano (by Yeol Eum Son) or orchestral ( Chailly) and l Oiseau de feu (by Szell) are three things I will hear all my life. with Prokiev everything is not excellent (the second symphony is very very strange!)but there are more masterpices like the Lieutnant (Abbado!) the second and third piano concertos or Romeo and Juliet.

  • Gustavo says:

    “I think” Neeme Järvi?!

    Neeme and SNO on Chandos got a Gramophon Award for Prokofiev 6.

  • Danny says:

    The entire post is a means to politicise and reiterate that Gergiev is Putin regime’s tool. Same bla bla as usual – cancel culture at its best. Whoever has his or her own political standing or views needs to be exterminated. It is uneasy with Gergiev as his one of the very last genuine conductors. Thank God he does not live in the West, otherwise he would have been already ruined by the bought media and whatever movements.

    • John Kelly says:

      “one of the very last genuine conductors”……….meaning the ones who don’t rehearse much or have others do the basic rehearsal while they fly in from their latest hastily prepared performance? Yes, there aren’t many of them……you’re right.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      I dont care about Poutine when Gergiev does Prokofiev with the Mariinski I saw it in concert. Marvelous.

  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    Stravinsky did several masterpices but for me there s no doubt Prokiev is the greatest russian after Tchaikovsky. So many great things to discover.

  • Allen says:

    The photograph is Shostakovich.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      I think there’s also the always unfairly underated Aram Khatchatourian. Anyway it’s always good to hear Spartacus in the long version and Gayaneh

  • Murray Citron says:

    Try the survey of Prokofiev’s orchestral music with Martinon and the O.R.T.F. Orchestra on Vox…I have Vol. 2 (CDX 5054) which contains symphonies 2, 3 and 6 along with the “Chout” Suite…extremely powerful performances.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      Yes Prokofiev lived in Paris and he has his street in town close to the charming avenue Mozart.

  • John Kelly says:

    I always thought Shostakovitch was the best…….

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      I’am a big fan of the jazz and dance albums by Chailly and the RCO but concerning the concertos and the symphonies I think it’s less interisting than Prokofiev.

  • Tom Varley says:

    Leinsdorf’s recording of the 6th was for me the high point of his incomplete BSO recordings of the Prokofiev symphonies. I heard the 7th performed in the 70s by Maazel and Ormandy and thought it greatly underrated. I don’t think I’ve seen it on a program in decades.

    • esfir ross says:

      7th symphony of Prokofiev was the most popular and performed in Russia. Title “Pionerskaya”

      • Greg Bottini says:

        I love the 7th symphony.
        But when I tried to give thumbs up on your comment, esfir, the count on Tom Varley’s comment went down. When I kept clicking, the “thumbs up” indicator on Tom’s comment showed -8, and esfir’s showed 12. What the Fing F is up with that????
        The “new improved” SlippedDisc website still has a LOT of bugs in it.
        FIX IT, NORMAN.

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Yes, I agree. I think the Prokofiev recordings with the BSO are among the best, if not the best, legacy that Leinsdorf left in Boston.

  • Gregory Kuperstein says:

    Why in the article about Prokofiev there is a portrait of Shostakovich?

    • microview says:

      Depends on your computer OS. Agree with you re my old iMax but on up to date MacBook Pro you see the full pic with Prokofiev, Shost and Khach

  • M2N2K says:

    Another unnecessary attempt of ranking the unrankable. Each of the three wrote some great music and some mediocre music, as well as everything in between. We are fortunate that these three very different composers were born almost within just one generation and had overlapping lifetimes. Last century would have been much poorer musically without either one of them, let alone all three.

  • Richard Bloesch says:

    It’s odd that no one has even mentioned the Prokofiev piano sonatas.

  • MacroV says:

    I’ve never really listened to the Prokofiev 6th, but there’s a recent performance on the DCH with Paavo Jarvi that I’ve listened to several times. It’s not as full of memorable tunes as #1 or #5, but it’s rich and substantive – the 3rd movement is delightful. I’m in “where has this BEEN all my life?” mode. Sounds like something orchestral musicians would find very rewarding to play.