Guest conductor Lionel Bringuier. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Review: ASO marks a modernist path with music of Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky

Mark Gresham | 03 MAY 2019

Paris was Euorpe’s hotbed for the arts between the 20th century’s two World Wars. Those were the Années Folles – the “Crazy Tears” (1919-1939) – when creative types from across Europe and the Americas flocked to the city to be influenced and take part in its vivacious and decidedly modernist creative milieu.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, like many other artists, made his way there during that time, going into exile in 1918 following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Like many of his fellow creative Russian expatriates, Prokofiev made his way to Paris in 1920, residing there for another 15 years. There, personal creative voice merged elements of Russian traditionalism, neo-classicism, and the various kinds modernism he encountered. Even so, in 1936 Prokofiev was one of a minority of exiled Russians to return to his home country, which had become the powerful central one-party republic of the Soviet Union. He and his family settled permanently in Moscow.

On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened their “Made in Paris”-themed concert at with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4, under the baton of guest conductor Lionel Bringuier. There are actually two works titled Symphony No. 4 by Prokofiev: The first one, cataloged as Op. 47, was written in 1930, based upon the music the composer had written for his ballet, L’enfant Prodigue (“The Prodigal Son”), which had been premiered the previous year by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre-Sarah Bernhrdt in Paris. That Symphony No. 4 arose as a response tom a request from conductor Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to compose new work for the BSO’s 50th anniversary.


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What the ASO performed Thursday night was a second version, written in 1947 well after Prokofiev had returned to the Soviet Union, a revision which was so different from the original that the composer considered it an entirely new work and designated it Op. 112. It’s the version more frequently chosen these days by conductors, though musicologists tend to prefer the original.

It is not one of my own favorites among Prokofiev’s works. nevertheless, after a somewhat rough start, it was performed rather well. Out of the work’s four movements, I enjoyed the third the most, despite the overblown heroic quality of the end of the finale – the kind of ending that tends to bring audiences to their feet out of sheer loudness.

The problem in my estimation is that Prokofiev tried too hard to conform to the confines of “Soviet realism” in his rewrite in the course of expanding both the work’s length and its orchestration. That was certainly a pragmatic move to try to curry favor with the restrictive Soviet authorities. It’s highly likely that the original Op. 47 version would have likely better suited to the overall program’s Parisian sentiments.

Lise de la Salle is piano soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto. (credit:Jeff Roffman)

Lise de la Salle is piano soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concerto. (credit:Jeff Roffman)

After intermission, French pianist Lise de la Salle joined Bringuier and the orchestra to perform the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel. It’s a piece you could wryly subtitle as “A Parisian in America” and not be too far off.

Ravel spent four months on tour as pianist and conductor in the United States in the latter part of 1927, including an all-Ravel concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, performed by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. While in this country, American musicians Ravel met included George Gershwin, with whom he went to Harlem on several occasions to listen to jazz, which he called “America’s national music.” The experience strongly influenced Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, which he completed in 1931. Despite that, the piece retains its Gallic character.

Bringuier had conducted the work in late March with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and another French pianist, Hélène Grimaud, as soloist. In that program Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Valses nobles et sentimentales were paired with George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and An American in Paris as a canny way to exhibit cross-references between those two composers.

Under the hands of pianist de la Salle, who turns 31 in only a few days, Ravel’s Piano Concerto a work of boundless energy contrasting with many moments of clear, expressive serenity. Her solo piano part was magnificently complemented by Bringuier and the orchestra through the brilliant palette of musical color in Ravel’s orchestration. The listener was presented a performance that was absent any sense of creative fatigue or indecisiveness in its unfolding.


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Like the nearly decade-younger Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, also became a Russian exile in France. Though already living outside Russia since 1910, he likewise became separated from his home country by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Stravinsky arrived in Paris in 1910 to attend final rehearsals and premiere of his ballet, L’Oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”), which he had written ijn 1908. With its highly successful premiere, Stravinsky became an overnight sensation. That same year, he produced a Suite from the ballet’s music, revising it in 1919.

It was that 1919 revision of Stravinsky’s Suite from his ballet, The Firebird, closed the ASO’s Thursday night concert. It’s a familiar work for both the musicians and the audience, the final composition representing Stravinsky’s favored early Russian, pre-neo-classical period, though he would return to create a third suite of Firebird music in 1945.  even so, the 1919 version remains the most frequently played of the three Suites, and the ASO made very fine work of it on Thursday.

The program will be repeated on Saturday evening at Symphony Hall. ■


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