Thursday, 25 February 2010
My BBCSO students were rather more freaked out than I intended them to be when I played and showed them sequences from Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, preparing for tonight's performance of its sister work the Third Symphony conducted by Vedernikov. I'm still as baffled as anyone as to where this fascination with the dark world, and Prokofiev's ability to handle it 'subcutaneously' (as my much-missed colleague Christopher Palmer put it), might have come from.
There's little clue in diaries or letters, only a rather funny entry for 30 November 1921 when SSP goes to one of batty Nina Koshetz's seances. He meets her spirit guide Uchshikay from the fifth century AD, whom Koshetz tells him was reincarnated as Schumann ('At this I asked...why so evidently enlightened an individual as Uchshikay should have been later incarnated in the body of so manifestly unenlightened a person as Schumann?'). There's a bit of a twist to all the sarcasm: cocky Sergey tells Uchshikay:
'I do not wish to hear you, because the world I see before my eyes is clear and bright enough for me not to risk throwing myself into the abyss of doubt that is spiritualism'. This elicited an astounding response: 'Sergey, you do not yet feel me, but I say to you, in the words of your poet [Pushkin]: "Remember me!" '. With that the seance ended, and I went home deeply stirred, mainly on account of this last utterance. Everything that preceded it could be discounted, but the beauty of this phrase stays with me, an incontestable treasure!
So maybe there was something of Sergey and Nina in the embattled relationship between The Fiery Angel's possessed Renata and hapless suitor Ruprecht. Anyway, it was the spirit-knocking scene which really stunned the students into silence, and I make no apology for equating the symphony directly with the opera; Prokofiev's later remark about disassociating the orchestral themes from their operatic context was a bluff to the Soviets.
We ended with the convent orgy, pictured above in the Jones production for La Monnaie, which I never got to see as I was chucking up from food poisoning on the morning I was due to take the train to Brussels. The top still is from that amazing Polish film about hysteria in a nunnery, Mother Joan of the Angels. This you should see if you feel strong enough.
I asked Robert Carsen if he got the idea for the final scene of Poulenc's Carmelites from the above image, but he hadn't seen the film and a group of prostrate nuns is, apparently, a regular enough phenomenon.
David Freeman's Kirov Fiery Angel, which travelled to London after astonishing the post-Soviet crowds with its nudity, wears well enough, especially in the use of white-powdered acrobats as demons. The DVD has all you could wish from Gorchakova and Leiferkus, but here's a whistlestop tour with a different cast. The music is the black sabbath which accompanies Ruprecht's visit to the disinigenuous necromancer Agrippa von Nettesheim and which later recurs as the climax of the ultimate mayhem. It serves here as the finale to the Third Symphony, which so astonished Richter in that context that he wrote: 'Grandiose masses gape and topple over - the end of the universe'.
Catch tonight's concert at the Barbican if you can, preferably, or on Radio 3 live at 7pm. I can't, as I'm back at the Royal Opera to chat with Andrew McGregor about that Gambler of genius for R3, due for broadcast some time in May. I'll have to catch up on the Listen Again facility. There's still time, by the way, to hear the last BBCSO concert of Janacek, Korngold and Martinu on the R3 iPlayer.