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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 3, Opus 44 (1928)
Symphony No. 4 (revised version), Opus 112 (1947)
French National Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
Recorded April (No. 3) and November (No. 4) 1987, Grand Auditorium, Radio France, Paris
ELATUS 2564 60020-2 [78.12]

Prokofiev's approach to the symphony varied considerably from work to work, but something these two highly individual pieces share in common is that each has its roots in previously composed music for the stage. The Third Symphony is closely linked to the opera The Fiery Angel, while the Fourth developed out of the ballet The Prodigal Son. The composer returned to the Fourth Symphony in the 1940s and undertook a thorough revision of it, to the extent that it gained a new opus number: 112 compared with the original 47.

Rostropovich recorded both versions of the Fourth Symphony during the course of his complete cycle in the late 1980s, and it is the revised score that is given here. However, in the rather thin insert notes no mention is made of the revision, and everything refers to the 1930 original.

The Third Symphony is typically dense in orchestral textures. Prokofiev was at his most expressively intense and technically complex during the 1920s, and the music is not at all easy to bring off. It is undoubtedly the work of a master, but this performance at any rate does not really catch fire. Those of Gennady Rozhdestvensky (EMI) and Neemi Järvi (Chandos) are more satisfactory in allowing the complex lines to combine in making their mark.

Part of the problem is the very ample acoustic, or at least the impression of such. The sound is not particularly well balanced and, for example, important string lines can be lost when the power of the brass and percussion sets in during climaxes. Whether it is this or Rostropovich's slow tempi (he adds a full five minutes to Järvi's timing) that should shoulder the blame for the curious lack of tension and momentum is not clear, but lack of tension there certainly is. There is no lack of force or power, however, since the passion and commitment are never in doubt.

The Fourth Symphony has had a mixed press over the years, and the fact that the composer chose to revise it so thoroughly has in many ways encouraged its critics. Of the revised version (recorded here), Prokofiev said: 'The previous material has been preserved to some degree, but I have added so much that this could almost be called my Seventh Symphony'. For this reason he assigned the music a new opus number. In its new and longer form, and with generally richer orchestration, it undoubtedly gained from Prokofiev's experience in his Fifth and Sixth symphonies, probably his greatest symphonic works. Be that as it may, it was never performed in his lifetime, the premiere taking place only in 1959, six years after his death.

The orchestration of the revised Fourth is more varied than that of the Third Symphony, and this suits Rostropovich's preference for slow tempi. Beyond that the same strictures apply, and this music can gain from a lighter touch of balancing and phrasing, not to mention the simple matter of faster tempi. Of course there is more than one way of performing a masterpiece, but if a choice needs be made, then Järvi's performance is the one.

Terry Barfoot

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