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Angel Fire

June 19, 2007

Three lesser-known works of Sergei Prokofiev were featured on Saturday's concert of the San Francisco Symphony's festival program in Davies Symphony Hall. After a lightweight icebreaker, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas launched into two of Prokofiev's largest, most demanding orchestral compositions, abetted by pianist Vladimir Feltsman. The final result drove the large audience into something close to frenzy, and with good cause. As a display of sheer virtuosity, there's little that could top it.
MTT opened with Prokofiev's short American Overture, Op. 42, in its original 1926 format for 17 players. Then came one of the composer's major masterpieces, the abrasive Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 44. Following intermission, Feltsman joined MTT and the orchestra for a knockout punch, the athletic Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16 (1924). The sheer bravura of it all had the audience cheering and demanding numerous bows.

As if to soften the audience's mood before they confronted late-Saturday-night traffic, Feltsman did something unusual for the soloist at an orchestral program. He played a particularly genteel encore, the third of Schubert's Moments musicaux, D. 780. But he had, after all, opened the event with a small solo recital that included Tchaikovsky's Dumka, Op. 59, and some of Prokofiev's transcriptions of excerpts from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. In a way, he played a framing for the main subject of the evening.
Fiery Pathology
Prokofiev began the music of his Third Symphony intending it to be an orchestral score, but then incorporated that into his opera L'Ange de feu (The fiery angel). Completed in 1923 and revised four years later, the opera was not staged until 1954, in Paris, a year after the composer's death. The reason was simple: The plot contains a mixture of religious extremism and sexual violence, as a girl-turned-nun evolves into a sexual monstrosity. It simply didn't lie within the bare moralistic codes of the 1920s. After all, Strauss' opera Salome (1905) was still being widely castigated for its religious-sexual pathology.

So Prokofiev reworked the music into a symphony, yet without literally extracting a set of scenes from his opera. The result is a long, powerful work that's fearsome to play, and not all that easy on listeners, either. It's as fierce as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and, if anything, harder on the orchestra. Its satanic Scherzo, for instance, comes as close to sonic hallucination as anything in the repertory. There's hardly a moment of repose in the entire symphony, from its clangorous opening to its final apotheosis — just one dramatic lunge carrying all before it.

When performed as flawlessly as it was on Saturday, it's a wonderful experience. For me, this is Prokofiev's finest symphony, as well as one of his greatest accomplishments. The pity is that the San Francisco Symphony prepared it for a single exposure this summer. The Third Symphony needs more chances to be heard. The performance was a stunner. I do not think it can be better played.

The opening American Overture, by contrast, sounded a bit ungainly. That's partly due to the unbalanced forces the composer called for when orchestrating this toccatalike Rondo. It's top heavy. Prokofiev calls for six winds, three brass, two each of harps and pianos, plus a coven of percussionists against only one cello and two string basses. That can't work, so the composer reset the overture for orchestra in 1928. Either way, it's not much more than a way to add eight minutes to a program.
A Rare Bird, Seldom Seen Live
As the largest, longest, and most pianistically fearsome of Prokofiev's five piano concertos, the Second took a long time to establish itself. Performances were exceedingly rare until Jorge Bolet took it on in the late 1940s and then gave it wide exposure via the first recording — with Thor Johnson and the Cincinnati Symphony.

It's one of the most difficult of all concertos to play, right up there alongside the Brahms Second and Rachmaninov Third. Hence, it failed to get many live hearings until the 1960s, when several major pianists took it on. Even so, recordings remain more numerous than live performances.

Feltsman tore into its pyrotechnics like a crazed man with full battle flags flying. That's the best way to play it, even if it means the occasional mismatched note. When the melting moments of lyricism came along, he molded his piano tone into a singing purr of timbre. I was especially impressed that Feltsman could capture the humor in the ghoulish March, the third of the concerto's four movements. His was a perfect presentation of Prokofiev's impish sarcasm.

The opening half-hour recital that preceded the concert was less impressive. Tchaikovsky's Dumka ranks as one of his precious few virtuoso works for solo piano. It's set out along the lines of the more famous Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt: a slow, soulful opening; a batch of flashy folklike dances; then a brief return of the opening material toward the end.

Oddly, some of Tchaikovsky's other solo piano music — music largely for salon use or for children — contains much more interesting thematic material. Indeed, these formed a source for Stravinsky's ballet The Fairy's Kiss, which Tilson Thomas programmed in its Divertimento form a few months ago. (Tchaikovsky also wrote two large piano sonatas, though they're duds.)
Transcription a Pale Version of the Original
Playing a piano reduction of excerpts from Romeo and Juliet seems a dubious act to me, especially considering that the orchestra had already played them days before — the usual stuff: Young Juliet, Dance of the Knights, Dance of the Maidens, and such. But piano transcriptions of orchestral music necessarily lack the force and color of a full orchestra. And anyway, Prokofiev wrote a lot of genuine music for piano besides the nine sonatas.

It would have seemed more helpful to program some of the Ten Pieces, Op. 10, or perhaps the more adventurous 20 Visions fugitives, Op. 22. The basic point of the current 10-day outing of Prokofiev compositions was to broaden our view of him, so why repeat the obvious?

Feltsman played the Tchaikovsky from memory, but used a score for the ballet excerpts. That invariably creates a dangerous distraction, particularly when the music is quick. So more notes than usual were missed, and far less attention was paid to his piano tone than is normal for this pianist. On the whole, I found the ballet excerpts too percussive — more appropriate to the concerto than to ballet music. Perhaps even Feltsman felt the programming of transcriptions was hardly worth the effort.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.