Prokofiev - Man of the People?, Royal Festival Hall, London

The question mark in the title is important. Although Sergei Prokofiev’s place among the great composers of the 20th century has never been in doubt, there is still much about his life and work that remains unclear. Why did his music change in the 1930s? Why did he voluntarily go back to live in Stalinist Russia? And how far did state-sponsored repression break his spirit?

It is unlikely that Prokofiev: Man of the People? will provide answers to many of these questions, but at least the debate will be getting a thorough airing. Over the next few weeks the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s festival promises talks, a symposium on the composer’s diaries, a club night and a line-up of concerts that features quite a lot of rarely heard music alongside the familiar favourites.

Rather than throwing audiences in at the deep end, however, the opening concert started out gently – too gently perhaps, as the solo trumpet that heralds the Suite from Lieutenant Kijé was so far off stage as to be barely audible. This performance, though, was all of a piece, with the genial conductor, Alexander Vedernikov, apparently viewing the suite as a series of pale, Impressionist watercolours rather than vividly coloured cartoon capers.

The Cello Concerto of 1938 (better known in its rewritten guise as the Sinfonia Concertante) is a hard nut to crack for soloist and audience alike. Danjulo Ishizaka played it with iron fingers and enviable strength, but even his stalwart efforts failed to give this rather aimless concerto a sure sense of direction. As it goes round and round in the last 15 minutes looking for an ending, one wants to run to the exit door, hold it open, and yell “This way out, please!”.

Although it is not heard much more often, the Symphony No.7 is a sure-fire work by comparison. A year before his death, Prokofiev still had good tunes flowing from his pen and this symphony soars to a fantastical, airborne close. The LPO played it well, but the laid-back Vedernikov remained as earthbound as he had been at the start of the evening. Prokofiev deserves better and will surely get it when Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra’s principal conductor, takes over for the bulk of the festival’s concerts.

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