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
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
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.