Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Year 1941, Op. 90 (Symphonic Suite) (1941) [15:01]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [44:47]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Sala São Paulo, Brazil, 26-31 August 2011. DDD
NAXOS 8.573029 [59:48]
As is stated on the back of the CD case, this is the first volume of a complete cycle of Prokofiev symphonies. However, the main interest must be in the rarely performed filler, the Symphonic Suite The Year 1941; this for two reasons. First, this is the best recording of the work that I have heard. The suite also paired with Theodore Kuchar’s recording of the Fifth Symphony earlier on Naxos, but this one outclasses his as to the orchestral playing and sound, and is every bit as convincing. Second, while the symphony is certainly well played by the São Paulo Symphony, for some reason Marin Alsop seems rather disengaged from the music.
Prokofiev began composing his symphonic suite shortly after the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and supposedly depicted the events in the work. The titles of the three movements are 1) In the Struggle, 2) In the Night, and 3) For the Brotherhood of Man. Yet, the listener would never guess this from hearing the score. It sounds like music that could have been composed for his Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella ballets or, in the first movement, also The Love for Three Oranges. There are hints of the Fifth Symphony in the second movement and of the Sixth Symphony in the last movement, but overall it is the ballets that most readily come to mind. The work was not well received when it was first performed; and one can see why, as it must have not met the expectations of the audience or the critics. The actual music is mature Prokofiev and very listenable, even if not quite from his top drawer. At any rate, it does not deserve the neglect it has received, and Alsop’s performance should go some way towards bringing it to the public’s attention. She injects the first movement with sufficient drama and the second movement - my favorite of the three - is poignant and touching. The orchestra sounds world class both here and in the symphony.
The orchestra cannot really be faulted in the symphony either. The first movement Andante is smoothly and beautifully played with warm strings and very nice woodwinds, but little drama or tension. However, Alsop fails to build the movement to keep it interesting. I found my mind wandering throughout. I only had to turn to my benchmark, the classic 1960s recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) to hear what is missing in this new account. Also, Valery Gergiev’s London Symphony (Philips) account that is part of his complete cycle has all the drama and finesse that this movement requires. The recorded sound, itself, also seems inferior here to what the engineers achieve in The Year 1941, though both works were recorded in the same venue. The sound lacks ideal clarity and the bass in particular seems muffled. Turning to Karajan - his recording still sounds good after all these years - or Gergiev and the difference is notable, with the sound open and clean. Perhaps their recordings are drier in their ambience, but that is a real plus in this densely scored work.
So it goes for the rest of the symphony. Alsop’s tempos seem normal enough, although she is a bit slower than Karajan and especially Gergiev, with the exception of the third movement Adagio where Karajan is slower than either Alsop or Gergiev. It is not a question of speed in any case. Alsop sets a good tempo for the main theme of the second movement scherzo, but then takes the trio section much slower than usual. Again the woodwinds excel here, yet the whole movement could do with a shot of adrenalin. Alsop is at her best in the slow movement which she treats quite romantically, emphasizing the lyrical elements. This works well for the most part even if it misses some of the power that Karajan and especially Gergiev bring to the later, dramatic parts of the movement. The finale like the others begins well enough with an introduction that is lyrical and chamber-like in its texture. After this the main theme, while beautifully played by the clarinet, lacks the necessary sting and character that are so evident in the other two accounts. When she gets to the coda, things become much more exciting. However, this is a case of too little too late, I’m afraid. It does not bode well for the remainder of her symphony cycle. Let’s hope that she finds more interest in the less frequently played symphonies.
Overall, then, Alsop’s account one of the most popular twentieth-century symphonies poses no challenge to the most illustrious of its predecessors. Karajan’s is still my favorite and Gergiev’s is a close second, but is available only as part of his complete set of symphonies which, with the exception of a curiously heavy Classical,offers a viable proposition for these particular works. It certainly can be recommended as a digital recording with up-to-date sound. Nonetheless, I will keep this new Alsop disc for the accompanying work. Keith Anderson has provided good notes on the background of Prokofiev’s career and gives a fine account of the symphony. More detailed information on the suite, though, would have been helpful.
Compelling for the rarely recorded The Year 1941, but not for the main work.
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies