In the course of a very active and eventful life, Prokofiev acquired a succession of "images", each of which focused attention on only one aspect of his work. He was in turn an enfant terrible, "the musical playboy of the western world", Russia's prodigal son - and, after the notorious "conference" of 1948, Zhdanov's principal victim. From today's perspective, we can at last see that the apparently contradictory aspects of Prokofiev's character - the lyrical and the innovatory, the child-like and the knowingly sophisticated - were in fact necessary and fruitful complements in a distinctive personality. The complexity of Prokofiev's artistic make-up is more apparent than real, and to grasp his fundamental simplicity is to find that much that was previously thought problematical has fallen into place. Such a simplicity is not naive: it embraces shrewdness, wit, acute observation, but most of all it has an immense capacity for enjoyment. It is not without significance that Prokofiev's favourite composer was the matchless Haydn.
The Classical Symphony dates from 1916-17, when the composer was reputedly a modernist "terrible". "I'll show them" may well have been the impish thought behind it, but the work itself is more than a jeu d'esprit; impishness does not really enter in, unless it is in the parodying of eighteenth-century cadences, figurations and accompaniments. Parody, however, is not as appropriate a term as has sometimes been supposed, for Prokofiev's relationship with his models is primarily one of affection and delight. If mimicry is involved, this is rather in the manner of a child, unobserved, imitating a favourite uncle.
Prokofiev's declared aim was to write "the kind of symphony that Haydn or Mozart might have written if they had lived in the twentieth century". Apart from a third kettledrum, the orchestra is the standard classical one; the forms, too, pay homage to the classical era, but there is little contrapuntal interest and many of the textrues are closer to those of the pre-classical symphonies. The essential quality is the freedom, naturalness and zest with which every step is taken, for it is the music itself, not the background, that has made this symphony so popular.
Program note by Hugh Ottaway
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Walter Weller
Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Charles Dutoit (Decca 421 813 - 2)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG 423 624 - 2)
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