Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 “Classical Symphony” [13:49]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 [41:59]
Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 31 October, 2 November 2009, Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, Sydney. DDD CD/SACD Stereo
EXTON EXCL-00042 [55:57]
Although only fairly recently taking up the reins of the Sydney Symphony, Vladimir Ashkenazy has already made a host of recordings with his new partners. He was appointed Principal Conductor in 2009 and has wasted no time in committing to disc the kind of repertoire which we would normally associate with Ashkenazy-the-conductor. Rachmaninov and Elgar abound in the Sydney/Ashkenazy discography, and this latest disc on the Japanese label Exton adds to the partnership’s Prokofiev series.
Prokofiev’s First and Fifth are one of the most familiar of pairings in the Prokofiev discography. They easily eclipse the rest of Prokofiev’s fascinating symphonic cycle in terms of popular appeal and seem a logical place to begin a cycle, if that is what this is to become. The ebullient First, named the ‘Classical’ for its Haydnesque proportions and throwback-harmonic language is here played with terrific precision and beauty of sound; the wind solos are very fine, particularly in the autumnal lilt of the conclusion of the second movement (figure 39[2:59]) where the chattering oboe and singing strings are very finely balanced. Elsewhere, though, this is a performance which values clean lines and precise balance at the expense of character and while the playing is more consistently beautiful than the London Symphony Orchestra’s under Valery Gergiev (Philips 4757655), Gergiev captures better the mischievous charm of this symphony and its playful updating of a long-distant sound world. Exton’s recorded sound is nicely bassy but somewhat muffled and the stereo mix is rather narrowly focused. This may not be a problem on the SACD layer, though, which I was unable to sample.
The Fifth is one of Prokofiev’s greatest and in some ways most misunderstood works. There’s a vein of madness coursing through this music which only comes to fruition in the Symphony’s finale. Its descent into mechanical madness was completely missed by the Soviet authorities at the work’s 1945 premiere, who, at a time when the Great Patriotic War was swinging so decisively in their favour, seem to have taken the Symphony’s heroic bluster at face value. Some conductors continue to read the music straight down the line to this day and on this evidence Vladimir Ashkenazy seems to be one of them. His reading underplays the more sinister elements; indeed, the final movement’s cataclysmic conclusion seems an abrupt gear-change rather than the logical upshot of what has preceded. The Sydney Symphony again play with a cleanliness and beauty, though their weaknesses are brought out a little more here, particularly in some doddery trumpet playing. Ashkenazy follows convention by completely disregarding the printed metronome indications (can the Adagio ever have been played as fast as is requested in the score?), though he goes perhaps too far by almost doubling the first movement’s opening tempo.
Ultimately, this performance of the Fifth Symphony is rather unmemorable, particularly when compared with Herbert von Karajan’s magisterial 1968 recording of the Fifth (DG Galleria 4372532), surely one of the greatest things the diminutive Austrian maestro ever did.
Andrew Morris 

Good, clean, but ultimately unmemorable performances rendered in less than ideal sound