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Len Mullenger:

Seven Symphonies. Lieutenant Kijé - Symphonic Suitea.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa with aAndreas Schmidt (baritone).
DG Collectors Edition 463 761-2 [four discs] [268'10]. Recorded 1989-92.

For anyone who only knows the more famous symphonies (Nos. 1 and 5), this set offers an ideal opportunity to explore the gaps. The individual discs are even programmed so as to work successfully as couplings within themselves.

Ozawa's performance of the pastiche first symphony (the Classical) does not show off this conductor at his best. Both the Larghetto and the Gavotta are sluggish: the frenetic finale unfortunately makes insufficient amends. This is coupled with a revelatory performance of the Sixth Symphony (in E flat minor), however. Written between 1945 and 1947, this is Prokofiev's longest symphony (42 minutes). Ozawa seems inspired by its bleak outlook and responds well to the shifting moods of the Largo.

The Second Symphony offers another major challenge. This is Prokofiev on the edge, pounding out obsessive rhythms and giving plenty of opportunities for manic playing (fully realised here by the Berlin players). One comes away with an awareness of the enormity of Prokofiev's imagination, particularly in the field of orchestration. There is phenomenal textural variation in the second movement (a set of variations: note that the individual variations are given index points rather than tracks). The coupling for the Second, the Seventh, contrasts well with the earlier piece. Ozawa projects the lyricism and the spirit of the dance well.

The third disc presents two symphonies, Nos. 3 and 4, based on pre-existing material. No 3 in C minor is based on themes from the opera The Fiery Angel, while No. 4 in C uses material from the ballet The Prodigal Son. These two symphonies complement each other particularly well. Only the Andante of the Third provides real respite from the unremitting, driven, powerful atmosphere of this symphony. Again Ozawa seems at home under these circumstances. The more restrained Fourth ends with a skittish finale in the spirit of the circus.

Saving the Fifth until last, Ozawa conducts a performance that sustains the long lines of the first movement whilst remaining alive to the underlying unrest at the end. Within the context of this set, it does not disappoint. The filler, the Suite from Lieutenant Kijé, is most appropriately chosen. Schmidt is in good voice, and hearing the Troika with singer is an interesting alternative.

Although one may point to preferable performances on an individual basis (Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony in No. 5, for example, or Mravinsky in No. 6), this set is the ideal introduction to some of the most cruelly under-performed music of Prokofiev's entire output. At the price, it is positively mouth-watering.


Colin Clarke



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