Much of the history of the twentieth century is some variation on the idea of exile, occasionally self-imposed. Music’s portion of that history is filled with musicians and composers who fled the Nazis or the Communists for safer environs. But there was a small subset of prominent musicians who remained firmly entrenched in the cultural life of these regimes, and they are often the figures that are the subject of some controversy (the obvious archetype being Wilhelm Furtwangler). Sergei Prokofiev was one such figure.
Prokofiev had left Russia for the United States after the revolution of 1917, presumably inspired in part by the success of other Russian performers in America (which is to say Rachmaninov), and spent the next 18 years abroad, both in the US and in Paris, making pretty frequent returns to Russia as a performer and composer. By 1936 he was homesick enough to return permanently. This meant dealing with the bullshit of Stalin’s government and things like the Union of Soviet Composers and the Zhdanov Decree, things which caused turbulence in Prokofiev’s last decade and a half as a composer. Like Shostakovich, it required a delicate dance of appeasement and frustration, toeing the party line and unleashing your innermost feelings in deeply hidden musical codes.
Prokofiev’s toes were firmly in line for the last orchestral composition he wrote. It was a celebration of the canal joining the Volga and Don rivers, an endeavor that had been in that theoretical planning stage for centuries alongside flying cars and my career in radio. The premiere took place in late February, about three months before the canal actually opened, and the audience was treated to what Prokofiev dubbed a “Festive Poem” with the mysteriously cryptic title The Meeting of the Volga and the Don.
It is perhaps disingenuous to say that this piece compares favorably to Prokofiev’s greatest works, but what it lacks in refinement and technical mastery it more than makes up for in sheer entertainment and brute force. At times it borders on film music (as music for a state function would have needed to sound), but it still has many characteristic Prokofiev-isms, not the least of which is the always fascinating use of color, texture, and contrast. There could not be a bigger difference between the gentility and peace of the middle Andante and the boisterous and big-chested fanfare sections that comprise the bulk of the work. The ending is one of my favorites in the repertoire, a sort of musical orgy between the endings of Sibelius 5, Shostakovich 5, Spartacus, and Le Corsaire.
It’s hard to track down performances and recordings of this music. It appears to still have a single commercial recording (at least according to ArkivMusic), an old one with Riccardo Muti and the Philadephia Orchestra paired with the infinitely more famous Symphony no. 5 that is actually out of print but available thanks to the miracle of ArkivCD. I actually found this recording in a used bin at the formerly great Classical Millenium in Portland for something like $4, and I about lost my shit when I saw it. My initial encounter with the piece was on the radio, and I liked it so much that I did something that I had never done before and have not done since: I called a radio station and requested a song. King FM in Seattle was kind enough to play it on some program on Sunday afternoons that was devoted to under-the-radar music, and I recorded it onto a cassette tape like it was fucking New Kids On The Block. And that cassette tape was all I had until that magical trip to Classical Millenium.
Now, thanks to the majesty of the internet, we can all experience the fun of this piece. This performance is from the Chicago Symphony and its (when healthy) music director…wait for it…Riccardo Muti. Kudos to him for being the only major conductor to take a run at this piece. Even 20+ years later he still has an invigorating approach and the orchestra is up to the task. It’s a single FLAC file captured from the KWAX-FM stream on January 12, 2013 taken from performances in June 2012. Enjoy (link below) and let me hear your thoughts on the piece!