The Third Symphony (1928) was based on the opera The Fiery Angel (1922-25). Neither work was a success when first written; indeed, the opera was not given a stage performance until after Prokofiev's death. Today both are recognised as being among his strongest works, the symphony being in large measure a synthesis of ideas derived from the opera.
The Fiery Angel, a mystical tale of doings in the Middle Ages, tells of Renata, a wild-eyed creature who is haunted by visions of an angel she has seen in her childhood and who now seeks to discover it in the human form of the men in her life. The material of the symphony's first movement is based on themes connected with Renata, her obsession and the thwarted devotion of Ruprecht, who is in love with her. It is fiercely socred and largely episodic in construction - in the development section of the basically sonata-form movement we hear the interlude from Act Three of the opera. The movement's most inspired passage comes in the coda when the main dea returns, ghost-like, over a mysterious ostinato figure.
The haunting slow movement derives fromthe start of the fifth and last act of the opera, when Renata is discovered in rapt contemplation at a convent. A modal-like theme is intoned pianissimo on the strings, then on the flute. This is direct, folk-like music, prophesying laster Prokofiev. It is followed by another gentle, more descriptive idea. Out of these, Prokofiev fashions a muted song-like reverie, sustained, almost hypnotic in effect, a fantasy richly orchestrated, but with more than a suggestion that Renata's spirit is unappeased.
The whispering scherzo was inspired, as Prokofiev admitted, by the brief, unforgettable finale of Chopin's B flat minor Sonata. It is suggestive of Renata's use of magic to conjure up the angel of her imagination, while in absolute terms showing the composer's masterful use of rushing strings. Like the Chopin, it is relentless in its forward movement and only briefly relieved by the more peaceful trio, marked Allegretto, with a prominent role for the wind. The agitato scherzo returns unabated, unrested.
The finale is another heavily scored, menacing movement like the first. It is based on a second-act interlude in the opera, and speaks of suffering and torture, both real and imagined in Renata's mind. There are three main themes, two recalling earlier ones, and the music rises to a coda of searing power, the brass dominant.
Program note by Alan Blyth
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Walter Weller
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