Rachmaninoff, Ravel & Prokofief – Naomi Yoran

For
those who love Rachmaninoff (I do!) there was much to rejoice in the
last two concerts. Two in a row! I can’t remember a previous season
where Rachmaninoff was performed in consecutive concerts.

 

For the skeptics, or better to say: For the "self proclaimed unsentimental", the symphonic poem The isle of the Dead
might have changed their minds. (Especially, I think, if they did not
read the program notes…) This brings me to the ongoing question:
Should one listen to music relying on the composer’s "program" for
clues, or should one avoid the "official story", engage his own
imagination and create his own images?

In
this case, the program notes describe Rachmaninoff’s interest in
creating a musical realization of Arnold Bocklin’s haunting painting “The isle of the Dead” … What a trap! This Swiss painter is known for his Romanticism… which some will immediately equate with sentimentality…

 

Being
curious, and not having ever heard this piece before, I read with
interest the detailed description of the painting. But than, as the
music started, I decided to forget it. It was not difficult and I don’t
think that I "did not get it". For me, music stands on its own. I also
believe that a symphonic poem might be inspired by a painting but it
does not necessarily "translate" visual images to musical notes. For
Rachmaninoff, I believe, this painting was just a point of departure
for creating music out of his emotions, reflections, memories,
yearnings at the time of this composition. (Away from his beloved home,
a stranger in a foreign land.) I also believe that as a composer he did
not insist on the listener being familiar with the painting in order to
appreciate his music. The brooding, melancholy yet crafted voices of
the instruments and hints to old, formal rhythms of death, allowed me
to have my own point of departure into my emotions, reflections &
memories while listening to the orchestra.

 

My
daughter, who accompanied me to the concert, whispered after the first
movement: “This music is so perfect for tonight. So gloomy. I would not
like it on a warm spring evening". Last Friday was a cold, gray &
rainy day… Case in point: Rachmaninoff preferred the black &
white reproduction of the painting (which he saw first) than the
original oil painting.

 

What
do you think?  Would anyone wish to study the painting prior to the
concert? Even better: have the painting on a screen while the orchestra
performs?

 

If
not for Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, I would reflect on Ravel’s Piano
Concerto in detail. I loved it & I loved the soloist, Helene
Grimaud, as fresh & brilliant as the music. Delightful!!!

 

Peter
& the wolf was probably my first encounter with Prokofiev’s music.
(The narration told in Hebrew.) I speculate that those childhood
delights trained my ears to what I would later describe as his
characteristic style. The Fifth Symphony is just the perfect example of
“what I expected from Prokofiev” while growing up: energy, big sound,
lots of brass, beautiful melodies, playfulness and a hint of mockery as
though the music wonders in & out of a traveling circus.

 

Many
years later, when I fell in love with the music of Shostakovich and
read as much as was available about his life & artistic struggle
under Stalin’s fist, I realized that Prokofiev’s musical style might
have similar “secret codes” so known by now to any Shostakovich
aficionado.

 

The orchestra, last Friday, treated me to the most satisfying performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony!  I
absorbed the music on several levels at once & found special
pleasure in “decoding” musical phrases. This composer, naïve or
foolish, returned  to Russiayears after the Bolshevik revolution to be praised at first &
terrorized later. (His first wife arrested & sent to prison for no
apparent reason…)

 

So
on one hand the symphony is classical in form (no surprises in the
first movement) and the composer declared it as a song of “praises of the free and happy man”
(Just the correct thing to say in 1944.) But then, what do we really
hear in the second movement? Are these sounds of joy or sounds of a
mockery?  My imagination (& childhood
memories) takes over and I see a procession of clowns tripping one over
another… Or perhaps this is the ultimate joy of man: To do as he
wishes, free to express his feelings like a happy child!

The
end of the last movement, with all its lightness & joy remains an
enigma to me: I hear a joyful “conversation of instruments”, most
clearly, the brass and the flutes. Then, towards the end, the orchestra
is playing in unison in what sounds to me as a machine… So is it really
a song of a free & happy man?

 

I once
talked with a close friend of mine who was born in the USSR during
WWII, about Prokofiev and  the fact that he died on the same day as
Stalin. (March 5, 1953)  My
friend remembers the morning when the radio announced Stalin’s death
and the whole “universe stopped”. Later he found out that Prokofiev
died of a heart attack later in the day and almost no one paid
attention & few came to his funeral… It is impossible not to
speculate that “finally Stalin killed him”… But as so many Russian
puzzles, one wonders: What did Prokofiev feel in his last day on earth?
Was his heart not able to handle the shock of
freedom? Did he even grasp that the terror as he knew it came to an
end? What was his last private song: An Ode or a circus march?

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Oct 25