> Prokofiev, Milhaud, Debussy, Shostakovich [TH]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.1, Op.25 ‘Classical’ [14.24]
Sinfonietta, Op.48 [20.53]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) orch. Ravel

Sarabande [4.57]
Danse [5.27]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

La Création du Monde, Op.81 [16.41]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Chamber Symphony for String Orchestra, Op.110a (arr. Rudolf Barshai) [27.39]
Symphony No.14 for soprano, bass, strings & percussion, Op.135 [50.07]
Makvala Kasrashvili (soprano), Mikhail Krutikov (bass)
Lausanne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alberto Zedda (Prokofiev, Debussy, Milhaud), and Alexander Lazarev (Shostakovich)
Recorded at La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, April, 1999 (Prokofiev, Debussy, Milhaud), and Lausanne University, April, 1990 (Shostakovich) DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 62050 2 4 [2 discs, 62.49; 77.59]

This inexpensive reissue of mainstream 20th Century orchestral music should have something for everyone. The light-hearted neo-classicism of Prokofiev and Milhaud contrasts well with the more sober thoughts of their great contemporary, Shostakovich, and given the persuasive readings throughout, the discs ought to find a ready audience.

Prokofiev’s immensely popular Classical Symphony is certainly not short of good recordings in the catalogue, but I enjoyed this Lausanne version as much as any I know. Alberto Zedda well understands the irony that is at the heart of this early work, a tuneful homage to the great classical masters. The composer proudly announced his intention to write the work shortly after his graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. It was to be "a symphony in the style of Haydn … if Haydn were writing today, I thought, he would keep to his way of writing, whilst at the same time incorporating newer ideas. I wanted to compose just such a symphony. I gave it the name Symphonie Classique – firstly because it was so simple; also in the hope of annoying the philistines, and in the secret desire to win in the end, if the piece should prove itself to be a genuine ‘classic’". Prokofiev’s friend, the great conductor Serge Koussevitzky, was a keen advocate of the piece, and his recording still sounds amazingly well. My own favourite has long been Marriner’s ASMF account, and this version matches the spirit of that performance well, with its chamber sized orchestra able to point up the delectably witty rhythmic turns with real flair and polish. I particularly like Zedda’s way with the delightful third movement Gavotte; the marking is Non troppo allegro – not too fast - and this conductor understands that a slightly slower, well-accented speed is perfect for the parodic style of the music. The marvellous Molto vivace finale can then race on to its conclusion giving, as here, a very satisfying end to the whole.

The graceful Sinfonietta, Op.48 makes an excellent companion piece, and ought to be better known. The first version dates from around the time of the Classical Symphony, but the composer revised the work in 1929, and it is this version recorded here. The more mature Prokofiev incorporated elements of his later style in the revision, a slightly darker, more dissonant tone infiltrating the generally sunny, genial atmosphere of the piece. Certainly there are places where one can detect the biting satire that was to become one of his hallmarks (such as the mischievous Scherzo), though generally the serene mood of the piece remains undisturbed. The evocative second movement Andante is full of Prokofiev thumbprints, the chief one being a soaring, angular melody that manages to sound both romantic and modern. The work strikes me as being easily as good as its more famous counterpart, and in many ways has more substance. It deserves a firm place in the repertory, and this fine, idiomatic recording can do its cause no harm at all.

The Ravel arrangements of two of his countryman Debussy’s shorter piano pieces tell us something about their uneasy friendship. The overall impression is of marvelling at Ravel’s prowess as an orchestrator, rather than revelling in the subtle keyboard harmonies of the originals. In any case, this recording must be as good as any, with exquisite woodwind detail, and rich but delicate string tone, serving both composers well.

Just as Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony pipped Stravinsky to become the first real example of neo-classicism, so Milhaud’s masterpiece La Création du Monde became the first example of a serious ‘art’ composer filtering jazz into a mainstream concert work.(in this case a ballet), beating Gershwin by a few months. The sultry, evocative opening, with its alto saxophone taking us into the Harlem nightscape, is clearly enjoyed by the Lausanne principal. When the dry, witty fugue breaks in (around 3.59), the tempo is just right; allowing the neo-Bachian polyphony to mingle perfectly with the jazzy ‘wrong notes’, creating a typical Les Six mixture.

The second disc is devoted to two of Shostakovich’s darker scores. If one is to believe the composer’s putative ‘memoirs’ Testimony, a much-disputed but very readable book, the Eighth Quartet is an autobiographical work, quoting many of the composer’s other works, and ultimately becoming a threnody for the victims of fascism. Rudolf Barshai is said to have made this transcription (and others) under the composer’s direction, and it has proved to be popular. Certainly, the addition of double-basses and judicious use of soloists within the massed string texture, allows for a fresh perspective on the work. Barshai himself recorded his own transcription, but Lazarev’s account has all the requisite darkness of tone, especially in the DSCH dominated opening movement. The unity of ensemble is excellent throughout, and the warm, spacious acoustic helps to focus the sound atmospherically.

The performance of the ‘song-cycle’ Fourteenth Symphony is equally persuasive, but here we hit a big problem. Many reviewers complain when budget re-issues leave out vital documentation that was probably there on original release, and in this case the lack of texts is of crucial importance. Shostakovich set a very personal selection of poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Küchelbecker, and, as with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, or Britten’s Nocturne, it is vital we know what is being sung if we are to get ‘inside’ the piece. This work is an artistic rumination on the theme of death, as private and intense as anything he wrote, and while the listener can appreciate the originality of the orchestration, or marvel at the variety and contrast he is able to achieve, there is a complete dimension missing without the texts and translations.

Most rivals supply these, so the buyer has to decide between price considerations, or gaining a fuller understanding of a major composer’s mature output.

It is a pity to have to end on a negative note; the soloists in the Symphony are outstanding, as are the orchestra, who balance intimacy and power to telling effect. But it really is not on to deprive us of sharing in the inspiration for the piece, especially as the extra cost to include the poems would surely have been minimal and would have guaranteed the discs a better all-round critical reception.

So, an excellent collection, well-recorded and expertly played, but with only a qualified recommendation.
Tony Haywood

 


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