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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Op. 33a (1919/24) [13:15]
Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25 (Classical) (1916-7) [13:50]
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1951-2) [29:57]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892) [22:59]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicolai Malko
rec. Kingsway Hall, February 1955
Experience Classicsonline

Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony ought to be more popular, and more frequently played, than it is. It's structurally concise, melodically expansive, and gently dissonant, without the brash, insistent discords that some listeners, including me, can find off-putting.
The first movement, mostly comprising a succession of broad, arching phrases, is dominated by the sweeping lyricism familiar from Prokofiev's ballets. Nicolai Malko displays a good feel for its expressive surge, aware of the ambivalence arising from the themes' gravitation among various short-term major and minor key-centers. He brings an infectious waltz-like swing and uplift to the scherzo while acknowledging the movement's brief pensive moments. Malko plays the Andante espressivo slow movement as a real andante ("moving"), a pleasing, songful intermezzo; keeping the movement in proportion to the rest where other, slower performances throw off the score's emotional balance. The finale's perky vigor suggests Shostakovich - the good way - but a few of the harmonic pivots are unmistakably Prokofiev's, as is another of those surging themes, brought in by way of contrast. Malko's touch is light and spirited, and, I'm pleased to note, plays the composer's added up-tempo coda; commentators are inclined to favor the original quiet ending, but the brief return of the faster material rounds things off nicely. Interpretively, Malko has succeeded in displacing my cherished favourites from the 1970s, by Weller (Decca) and Previn (EMI), although Weller's still offers more immediate sound.
Malko's account of the ever-popular Classical Symphony is vivacious, and he plays the Love for Three Oranges excerpts with a balletic lightness. Rhythmic buoyancy keeps the pounding, vaguely Age-of-Steel bits in Les Ridicules from turning oppressive, while the contrasting lyrical passages are shaped surely and musically. The March moves along, shorn of fussy over-pointings - the quirky harmonies provide sufficient characterization. Malko draws deep, luminous expression from Le Prince et la Princesse, though the movement peters out inconclusively.
The Nutcracker Suite, that holiday perennial, has gotten a fair amount of recorded attention; since most symphony orchestras don't play this music regularly, however, even polished performances don't always avoid a whiff of routine. Malko's take on it rises above that business-as-usual level, not because the conductor does anything unusual or eccentric, but simply by virtue of his care over detail. The wind chords in the Miniature Overture don't just get louder, they open out excitingly; the percussion punctuations in the Russian Dance aren't indiscriminate, uniform thumps, but build in volume and intensity. Tempi perhaps marginally slower than the Pops-concert norm allow us better to enjoy the "open" sound of three-part chords in the Dance of the Reed-Flutes, the crispness and "lift" of the Sugar-Plum Fairy's famous celesta solo, and the combination of weight and airiness girding the Waltz of the Flowers. It's nicely done.
It's good to have these recordings readily available, and in stereo - Stateside, RCA issued the original Prokofiev LP in monaural only. The sound is acceptable, but remember that this is very early stereo: colors emerge vividly enough, but the range extremes sound exaggerated - boomy bass, sometimes aggressive treble - and a pervasive sonic glare produces a "canned" effect. The ambience cuts off a bit abruptly at the end of several tracks.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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