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CD: AmazonUK

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 2 in D minor Op. 40 (1924) [37:43]
Symphony-Concerto in E minor Op. 125 (1951) [37:00]
French National Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich (symphony); Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), London Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Grand Auditorium, Radio France, Paris, December 1986 and April 1987 (Symphony); Henry Wood Hall, London, November 1987 (Symphony-Concerto). DDD
WARNER CLASSICS MAESTRO 2564 691742 [74:47]
Experience Classicsonline

The name of this Warner reissues label is Maestro. In a way that only applies to half of this disc. Rostropovich is certainly the maestro on the recording of Prokofiev's Second Symphony. But he is the soloist in the same composer’s Symphony-Concerto. However, in both pieces he demonstrates both his consummate ability, whether as cellist or conductor and his claim to be one of the foremost musicians of the second half of the century.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 was written in 1924 as an attempt at the style méchanique or as the composer put it “a work made of iron and steel”. It is in two movements, patterned after Beethoven’s last piano sonata. Most of the “iron and steel” is in the first movement and Rostropovich ably brings this out without getting bogged down in the layers of counterpoint for which the symphony is notorious. Unfortunately he cannot save the movement from certain elements of repetition. This causes the end section to go a little astray.

The much-larger second movement sets a diatonic melody against varying textures. These vary widely in mood. Rostropovich ably contrasts them without losing sight of the overall structure. His rendering of several of the sections is as close to perfection as you are likely to hear. An excellent example occurs in the central section of the movement with its combination of motor energy and mysterious strings. As the movement continues Rostropovich imperceptibly brings the first movement material forward so that we are almost subliminally jolted when it arrives in full.

This recording is taken from the complete set of Prokofiev symphonies Rostropovich did with the French National Orchestra about twenty years ago. While the hall could be more resonant, the orchestra is in fine form, especially the strings. Rostropovich also gets some wonderful combinations of those strings with members of the brass section.

In the Symphony-Concerto we have Rostropovich not only as cellist, but as a collaborator in the composition of the work. In the late thirties Prokofiev had written a cello concerto, but it had not been overly successful. About ten years later the composer met Rostropovich and wrote the Cello Sonata Op. 119 for him. The composer then offered to write a new concerto for Rostropovich, but ended up reworking the original concerto, with much help from Rostropovich, who gave its premiere in 1952. He recorded it multiple times, with the first recording in 1957 with Malcolm Sargent being the standard for many years. In this version from over thirty years later, the cellist’s sound is mellower and his phrasing is wonderful. Ozawa is also unexpectedly good in maintaining the contrast between soloist and orchestra.

The second movement starts off as a tour-de-force of motoric energy, but there are many moments of lyricism. Again Rostropovich and Ozawa are able to bring these forward in a way that justifies the title Symphony-Concerto. The highlight of the movement is a semi-cadenza of great beauty for Rostropovich and a few orchestral instruments. This is succeeded by a true cadenza leading to moments of volcanic energy which proceed to more threatening music and a final burst of excitement. All these changes are excellently negotiated. The last movement starts out very well with Rostropovich and Ozawa not neglecting the humorous element. They also make a good transition to the slower middle section, but after this things get somewhat ragged. This cannot be blamed on the LSO, as they play very dynamically throughout. The movement finishes off in a brassy manner. It is a disappointing end to an otherwise dynamic performance.

William Kreindler


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