Prokofieff’s first full-length opera is one of the most violent and frightening scores he ever wrote, poised on the edge of expressionist chaos, filled with grinding dissonances, pounding rhythms and tortured leaping melodies. It is a vivid dramatisation of Dostoyevsky’s nightmarish novella about a group of desperate and aimless Russians gambling their lives away in a spa-town in 19th century Germany.
The orchestral suite, Four Portraits, actually consists of five movements. Prokofieff shaped it out of fragments of his opera that he recomposed into what is essentially a new piece of music, almost a symphony. Each portrait depicts, with the most aggressive parody and distortion, one of the contemptible protagonists of the story: the bitterly resentful anti-hero, the young gambler of the title; the grotesque and extremely rich grandmother, who loses her entire fortune; the pompous old general; and the general’s stepdaughter, the unreliable and overwrought Pauline. The work ends with a fifth movement, Denouement, a recomposition of the original music of the closing pages of the opera as a dark and mocking vision of despair.
Note by Gerard McBurney