This is only the second commercially released recording of this work by the Philadelphia Orchestra - the first was with Eugene Ormandy. The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Ormandy, was also the first western orchestra to premiere the piece, in 1957. The Orchestra is led here by one of their preferred guest conductors, Vladimir Jurowski, in his debut recording of the piece.
If we go by the opus number, this work comes immediately after its composer’s Sixth Symphony, Op.111—not because Prokofiev wrote his symphonies out of numerical order but rather because he wrote his Fourth twice: first in 1929-30, as his Op. 47, and then again in 1947, when he overhauled the score so considerably as to create a new piece. Indeed some of the music he wrote not only twice but three times, for he had based the 1929-30 version of the Symphony on a ballet, The Prodigal Son, which he scored for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1928-29.
Bad Timing Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, he was unlucky in his timing here. Three months after The Prodigal Son opened, Diaghilev died and the company broke up, making the new ballet’s future uncertain. A commission from the Boston Symphony gave the luckless composer the chance to salvage some of the music, just as he had made a home for material from his deeply strange opera The Fiery Angel, never performed complete in his lifetime, in his Third Symphony of 1928. Whether he was aware of the fact or not, in making symphonies from stage music he was following the example of Haydn, his model when he was writing his First Symphony, the “Classical.” The Viennese master had done exactly this in reusing movements from incidental music for a play to fashion a symphony when he produced what we know as his No. 60, “Il distratto.”
Having returned to the Soviet Union a few years after bringing about his own theatrical-symphonic mutations, Prokofiev produced his next symphony, his Fifth, in 1944 as a stirring musical adventure of heroic determination and victory at a time when the country was massively engaged in combat with Nazi Germany. His Sixth, which followed in 1945-47, was partly a lament over the costs of war, and he seems to have intended the revised Fourth to complete a triptych, somewhat like that of his three piano sonatas of 1939-44 (Nos. 6-8). Once again, though, his timing was off. Early in 1948, he and his colleagues Shostakovich and Khachaturian were called to account for deviating from the official policy of socialist realism in the arts, and the new Fourth Symphony was a dead letter. The BBC gave it a studio performance in London in 1950, but it was not played before a concert audience until 1957, by which time its composer was no longer around to hear it. It had its first public performance on January 5 that year in Moscow under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and received its U.S. premiere here in Philadelphia on September 27, Eugene Ormandy conducting.
The 1947 Revision: A Closer Look The Symphony is an altogether bigger work in its 1947 revision, for Prokofiev made it half as long again and, while expanding the orchestra only a little, added solidity to the sound. A new opening, suggesting an oration or march (albeit in triple time) and distinctly recalling the manner of the Fifth Symphony, precedes the gentler introduction retained from the earlier version and is recalled after this, so that the Symphony now has a much more imposing and public mode of address as it begins (Andante).
After two minutes comes a complete change of mood and tempo for the eager, machine-rhythm principal subject of the main Allegro eroico, adapted from the scene in The Prodigal Son where the central character falls in with low companions. We might also think of some of the energetic, clashing music Prokofiev had written in the interim for another ballet: Romeo and Juliet. There is then a transition to the smoother, flute-led second subject, after which the excited first subject returns to convey the movement into its development section. This is where Prokofiev’s reworking is at its most intense. In the original version, the first-movement development lasted just a little over a minute; the more capacious 1947 score quadruples this, finding the means to do so in contrasting the hectic first subject with the magniloquent new introduction, the latter responding to the conditions of strain under which it is now placed. The inevitable outcome is a full-scale recapitulation of the exposition: the wild revelry or swordfight and the song, and the return of the former to end the movement with a punch.
When writing the Symphony for the first time, Prokofiev crafted its slow movement (Andante tranquillo) from the finale of The Prodigal Son, which is itself a mostly slow and peaceful movement, underscoring the wayward son’s return home to be embraced by his father. (The scenario entirely omits the more dynamic features Jesus gave his parable at this point, of rejoicing, of celebration, and of the other, faithful son’s understandable protest.) In the ballet original, there are three sections, of which the second is more agitated, providing a foil for the arrival of the broad, rolling melody that enables the work to end with calm and fulfillment. In the symphonic Andante, the big tune is introduced at the start and becomes the movement’s chief item. Prokofiev then cuts back to the first section of the ballet’s finale, so that this music now seems to be remembering rather than foreshadowing the splendid main theme, which comes back to carry the movement to its close.
This is the plan in both versions of the Symphony, the later one just making everything more grand. The introduction is expanded with some gorgeous modulations, setting up a larger stage on which the big tune can present itself. When it has done so, there is a transition to the section drawn from the opening of the ballet finale, extended with new ideas. Among these is a kind of “tick-tock” music heard in dialogue with a ballet theme voiced from the bass. This is succeeded by another ballet theme, introduced, as it was there, on clarinet, after which the bass-voice theme is repeated, now set off by woodwind wavings. Then the big tune starts to make its way back, to be stopped by sonorous chords. A passage of development ensues, including a tenser vision of the main melody in the wrong key (B major), before this melody is heard in its apotheosis, now sounding like something with which Prokofiev could have made his fortune had he decided in the mid-1930s to make his home in Hollywood rather than Moscow.
The third movement (Moderato, quasi allegretto) is once more an adaptation of a section from the ballet, in this case the dance for the Seductress, whom the Prodigal Son meets right after the pals whose music gave the Symphony’s first movement its quicker action. In 1929-30 Prokofiev had incorporated this dance without much change, for the music already had the sort of ternary form traditional for a symphonic scherzo, the straight rhythm of the brief middle section contrasting with the swirls and swoops of the main theme, whose many repeats offered opportunities for graceful—seductive, indeed—orchestration. The 1947 score simply enlarges all this with more repeats, and adds a wonderful coda.
That coda makes the noisy start of the finale (Allegro risoluto) all the more effective. As with the first movement, Prokofiev found a fast theme suitable for symphonic treatment in the early part of The Prodigal Son, going now to the very first scene, in which the young man is getting ready to leave. This bustling idea was played off in the original version of the Symphony against other material, including a breezy motif from the second scene, the one with the fellow wastrels, to build a sonata-type movement.
Only parts of that survive in the 1947 score, this ultimate movement being more substantially revised than the other three. It now begins with a slowed-down, plodding transformation of the departure theme, alternating with the up-tempo version and, in due course, the idea from the second scene that had been around before. This music then slows down to be replaced by a march, with stomping chords, fanfares, and eventually a toy-soldier solo trumpet. After this episode has in turn faded away, Prokofiev picks up the movement’s opening music by interposing the development section from the 1929-30 finale, leading this seamlessly into a variation in the manner of a cancan. That comes crashing into the colossal coda, where we hear an echo of the first movement’s solemn introduction. As in the coda to the original version, minor makes its claims against major, but now the major key is more certainly and emphatically affirmed.
Even here, though, we cannot be sure where we stand. The cancan is only one of the more obvious signs of a scary hilarity that runs through this work along with the portentousness, a scampish wildness beneath the three-piece-suit symphonic formality. Prokofiev was prone to such ironies throughout his creative life, but perhaps never more than in the late 1940s, when so many of the hopes nurtured in wartime were shrivelling. He was himself a prodigal son, who had left his homeland in his mid-20s and stayed largely away for two decades, living mostly in Paris but with stays in the U.S. Now he was back, and back for good. But Joseph Stalin was not quite the indulgent father he might have hoped for.
—Paul Griffiths Program note © 2009.