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Sergey Sergeyevich PROKOFIEV (1881-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [43:22]
Lieutenant Kijé suite, Op. 60 (1934) [21:03]
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, 18-19 March 2007
TELARC CD-80683 [64:25]
Experience Classicsonline

This was always going to be an intriguing comparison: a new Prokofiev Fifth recording conducted by Paavo Järvi, in his father's repertoire (specifically against the Chandos recording, CHAN 8450). Two very different bands as well, the sumptuous Cincinnatians and the grittier Scottish National Orchestra (now the RSNO), not to mention two labels known for their spacious, wide-ranging recordings. A rare feast indeed.
Neeme Järvi’s account of this wartime symphony comes from his much-praised SNO cycle recorded in the 1980s. Those were halcyon days for both conductor and orchestra, who produced some very fine discs of Richard Strauss, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Now Paavo (born in 1962) seems to be following in his father’s footsteps, especially when it comes to Russian repertoire.
Broadly, timings are very similar but nothing quite prepares you for how different the readings sound. In that remarkable opening Andante Paavo is altogether cooler, more measured, whereas his father opts for an unsettled, edgy approach, emphasised by the brighter, more focused recording. It’s only when you hear the latter that you realise just how bland Paavo’s reading really is. Yes, it’s beautifully detailed but the famous Telarc bass drum thuds rather than thwacks and the opening flute and bassoon octaves are surely much too moulded, rather like the movement as a whole. And the shattering cymbal-capped climax that grows from dark, subterranean beginnings is simply hair-raising on Chandos but fatally underpowered on Telarc. The SNO even make that rhetorical coda sound convincing, not the empty gesture that it can so easily become.
Now for the later. I recently listened to Paavo Järvi’s recordings of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Firebird and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 1  (Telarc 80587 and 80597 respectively) and while I enjoyed them both – albeit fitfully – I felt they were far too cautious, every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed. In particular the Firebird lacks that essential electricity and the Romeo and Juliet – though superbly played and recorded – seems curiously detached.
Back to the Fifth and that strange Allegro marcato. The opening staccato violin theme and syncopated clarinet figure are neatly articulated on the Telarc disc and the music’s errant, quicksilver quality is reasonably well captured. That said, Järvi senior’s greater experience results in a much more penetrating performance, full of manic chatter and underpinned by a steady pulse that invigorates without ever becoming breathless.
In the Adagio Prokofiev weaves a lyrical thread into the music’s rough cloth. The SNO’s massed strings are well-blended and ardent, the sullen bass never too far away. And in those great thumping perorations the Scots are beyond compare, the 1985 recording yielding absolutely nothing to the more modern one. Predictably the Cincinnatians major on warmth and lyricism but miss out on the music’s bipolar elements. The score really doesn’t respond well to Paavo’s carefully wrought but annoyingly episodic approach; indeed, that all-important pulse – when it’s discernible at all – is much too weak to keep the music alive. Hugely disappointing.
The Allegro giocoso begins with a reprise of the symphony’s opening theme, this time for massed strings. The younger Järvi coaxes some magical sounds from his orchestra but again he follows the letter of the score and misses its abundance of spirit. Admittedly the differences aren’t as extreme in this movement but the Chandos engineers manage to pick up much more instrumental detail than their American counterparts. And even though Paavo loosens the reins in the finale he must yield to his father in terms of sheer motoric thrust and excitement.
No contest, then, the elder Järvi still reigns supreme in this symphony. But what of the fillers? Chandos offer the Waltz Suite, Op.110, Telarc the Kijé suite. For comparison I took down the Abbado/Chicago Kijé (DG Originals 447 4192), another of those great collaborations that yielded some fabulous discs. Paavo doesn’t bring out the satirical elements of Yuri Tinyanov’s tale as well as Abbado does, although he does find plenty of warmth in the ‘Romance’. And at the opening of ’Kijé’s Wedding’ Abbado is much more bacchanalian, the crisp thwacks of the LSO bass drum superbly caught.
Järvi’s ‘Troika’ is a little more unbuttoned than I expected. The sleigh ride in particular is beautifully articulated, a fast but elegant dash across the snow. I was especially impressed by the Telarc recording here, as it picks up plenty of detail and atmosphere. I marginally prefer  Abbado at this point but really there’s not much in it. Regrettably Järvi loses out in the final movement, which sounds curiously leaden. It may be dirge-like but Abbado lifts the rhythms in a way that is altogether more effective – and affecting.
This simply isn’t a front runner in the Kijé stakes and the sonics aren’t up to Telarc’s usual standards either. What a pity they still insist on issuing CD and SACD versions separately, as an A/B comparison of the two layers would have been interesting. In any event recording repertoire for which Järvi senior is justly famous was always going to be a gamble. Regrettably, it hasn’t paid off.
Dan Morgan


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