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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)
CD 1 [78:02]
Scythian Suite (Ala and Lolli), op.20 (1914/1915) [20:07]
Piano Concerto No.1 in Db, op.10 (1911/1912) [15:55]
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, op.19 (1916/1917) [20:56]
Visions fugitives, op.22 (1915/1917) [20:35]
CD 2 [73:56]
Symphony No.1 in D, Classical, op.25 (1917) [13:45]
Cello Concerto in E minor, op.58 (1933/1938) [29:37]
Sinfonietta in A, op.48 (1929) [21:30]
Overture on Hebrew Themes, op.34 (1919) [8:40]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle (op.20); Martha Argerich (piano)/Orchestre Symphonique de Montral/Charles Dutoit (op.10); Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Lorin Maazel (op.19); Michel Broff (piano) (op.22); Philharmonia Orchestra/Efrem Kurtz (op.25); Jnos Starker (cello) Philharmonia Orchestra/Walter Susskind (op.58); Philharmonia Orchestra/Ricardo Muti (op.48); Michel Broff (piano), Michel Portal (clarinet), Parrenin Quartet (op.34)
rec. June 1987, Philharmonie, Berlin (op.19); 24-26 January 1992, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (op.20); 29-31 October 1997, L’glise de St-Eustache, Montral (op.10); 7 December 1981, Salle Wagram, Paris (op.22); 12-13 March 1957, Kingsway Hall, London) (op.25); 16-17 July 1956, Kingsway Hall, London (op.58); 29 June 1977, EMI Studio 1, Abbey Road, London (op.48); 2 April 1974, Salle Wagram, Paris (op.34). ADD-DDD
EMI CLASSICS 20TH CENTURY CLASSICS 2068602 [78:02 + 73:56] 


Experience Classicsonline

When I looked at the contents of these CDs I was amazed at how short the works were! In the past when I have listened to them, without thinking about their durations, they have always seemed to be much longer. Such is the power of music seemingly to bend time!

This is a very interesting collection, mixing the well known with the less well known and giving us performances well and less well known, covering a period of fifty years. Starting with a brazen performance of the Scythian Suite from Rattle in Birmingham, this sizzles in every bar and it’s great fun. Rattle doesn’t hold back and plays this for all it is worth. It was good to hear this because, shame on me, I’d forgotten what good work Rattle did with the Birmingham Orchestra, and this is a most welcome reminder. The recording captures the large orchestra well and allows the music a very wide dynamic range. 

Martha Argerich is one of the most exciting pianists around today and this performance of the early 1st Concerto is a real winner. She moulds the big opening tune well, then lets loose a torrent of notes, playing with real gusto. The slow movement is dreamy and gentle with a finely built climax, and the finale races away in high spirits, the big tune bringing it to a thrilling end. Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montral give solid support. 

When I first heard the 1st Violin Concerto, which must be some forty years ago, the work was still considered quite modern – Prokofiev’s spiky music causing quite a stir. These days, every violinist plays the two violin concertos and they have entered the repertoire – so much so that this 1st Concerto now seems to be a very romantic work. And that’s how Zimmermann plays the piece, lyricism to the fore, making it a very mainstream work. This is a most enjoyable performance and he’s given a fine accompaniment by the Berlin Philharmonic. 

Visions fugitives is a set of 20 aphoristic pieces ranging from a very tender opening piece to one marked Ridicolosamente. Strangely, these pieces have retained their ability to shock, unlike much of Prokofiev’s music of this period. Broff plays them with a straight face and this makes them all the more disturbing. Not as enjoyable as what has gone before, but this is because of the nature of the music, not because it is any less entertaining. 

The 1st Symphony is so well known that little needs to be said about it. This is a very spritely performance and it’s good to have an example of Efrem Kurtz’s art available on disk. There are no frills, it’s crisp and clean with no sentimentality, and Kurtz displays a very light touch, making the work all the more classical. 

The next two works are much less well known, indeed I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard the Cello Concerto before. This work was later revised into the Symphony-Concerto and one can see that it’s not an entirely convincing composition; the orchestration is a bit turgid, and the middle scherzo, which plays for as long as the other two movements together, outstays its welcome. The variations of the finale make the most satisfying musical experience. Starker is a marvellous cellist who made far too few records so to have this performance back in the catalogue is a real boon. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the Sinfonietta, a revision of an earlier work (op.5), which is light and breezy, and with four fast movements and one medium paced one how could it not be? It has the feel of light music – Ernest Tomlinson said that light music is where the tune is more important than what you do with it – and this work doesn’t hang around long enough for much to be done with the tunes. It’s racy and playful and Muti hits exactly the right tone with a lightness of touch which contrasts nicely with the occasional outburst. 

To end comes a lovely performance of the Overture on Hebrew Themes in its original sextet version. We seldom hear this version – the one made later for small orchestra is much easier to programme. It’s full of Prokofiev’s bluff good humour and is most enjoyable. 

This is a well planned programme and the CDs are generously filled. Despite the various recording dates one would be hard pushed to tell that two of them are over fifty years old! The piano in the Visions fugitives is a bit tinny, but not so much as to spoil your enjoyment of the work. The Cello Concerto doesn’t have quite the immediacy of the other recordings but the Classical Symphony is as bright as any on these disks.

This collection would make an ideal introduction to anyone wanting to investigate Prokofiev for the first time. It is a very enjoyable set and fans would want to have the Scythian Suite and the Piano and Violin Concertos in these marvellous performances. Well worth having.

Bob Briggs



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