Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.1 in D major Op.25 Classical (1917) [14:14]
Symphony No.2 in D minor Op.40 (1924) [35:53]
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.44 (1928) [36:46]
Symphony No.4 in C major Op.47/112 (1930 rev. 1947) [40:05]
Symphony No.5 in B flat major Op.100 (1944) [44:29]
Scythian Suite Op.20 (1916) [23:27]
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor Op.111 (1945-47) [41:50]
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 (1951-52) [34:31]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Zdeněk Košler
rec. Rudolfinum, Prague, The Czech Republic, 26-27 March 1973 (Suite); 27-29 September 1976 (No. 1); 3 October and 30 November 1977 (No. 7); 13 December 1978 and 9 January 1979 (No. 5); 28-31 March 1980 (No. 2); 15-17 September 1980 (No.6); 16-18 November 1981 (No. 4); 1-5 October 1982 (No. 3)
SUPRAPHON SU 4093-2 [4 CDs: 50:07 + 76:51 + 67:56 + 76:21]
This box continues Supraphon’s current policy of re-releasing bargain boxes of music from their back catalogue. These sets are characterised by being neatly and smartly packaged in a simple but sturdy box with each disc in a slip case accompanied by a booklet of brief liner-notes in English, German, French and Czech. Pricing is extremely competitive; each disc at bargain price reflecting the age of many of these recordings coming from the seventies and early eighties. When these sets have included such things as near-definitive collections of Dvořák’s chamber music or symphonies they are tempting indeed to the point of requiring little evangelising on behalf of a reviewer. Perhaps more of a case does need to be made for a cycle of Prokofiev Symphonies under the baton of Zdeněk Košler. This is not the first time this cycle has been released on CD - the last time was about fifteen years ago with the seven symphonies split across four discs in numerical order. This made for a rather short-measure: the third CD containing the Fifth Symphony alone. The same format has been kept here although an older - 1973 - recording by the same forces of the Scythian Suite Op.20 has been licensed from Panton to fill-out disc 3. The technical details accompanying this release states that they have been newly re-mastered in 2012 from the original tapes. Before considering the performances here are some other small details that might influence readers. The symphonies were recorded between September 1976 and October 1982 and they are all in analogue sound. Only the second version of the 4th Symphony is included - a shame and one that seriously undermines the idea that this is a ‘complete’ cycle. Whilst on the matter of versions; in the 7th Symphony Košler opts for the original quiet ending - as does Kitajenko while Weller and Järvi favour the revised festive tag. Other sets available at similar prices include both versions - a major consideration for the Prokofiev acolyte or simply curious. As with many Supraphon discs of this vintage the engineering is solidly good without being in any way demonstration quality. That being said, as is often the case, I found that my ear quickly adapted to the recording’s house-style and actually grew to rather like the simple and unfussy engineering. I used to own the 1st and 7th Symphonies from this set on an LP long since relegated to the attic. Memory tells me the reincarnation onto CD has improved the sound quality and bite of the performances a great deal. Sound-balances can be a little synthetic in some cases with prominent strings and recessed percussion and then ‘classic’ Supraphon on others with the whole orchestra placed at a relative distance in the resonant acoustic of the Rudolfinum. Brass and woodwind are identifiably central European and full of character as well as technically fine. I rarely look at other reviews once a disc arrives for consideration but I did have a cursory look at the Gramophone archive in this instance for the simple reason that I could not remember ever reading any opinions about it. There seems to have been no reviews of either the set or individual symphonies at any time - certainly it does not deserve this disregard now, let alone when originally released and complete cycles of these challenging works were far rarer.
The dilemma for any collector is will this cycle add much to their existing collection either as a ‘first’ set or to complement existing performances. I have direct knowledge of three other complete cycles; all of which can be found currently at a very similar price point. These are Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (as was) on Chandos, Weller and the LPO/LSO on Decca (currently licensed to Brilliant as well) and Kitajenko with the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra on Phoenix. The CD version of this latter set is more expensive but both it and the Järvi cycle can be found on some sites in 320 kps downloads for the stunning value of £7.99 so competition is very fierce. Not surprisingly all those sets together with the Košler under consideration offer different approaches and insights and no single set could - or should - be termed definitive. Then consider sets I do not know: from Gergiev with the LSO, Rozhdestvensky and his faithful Moscow RSO from their Melodiya days and even Ozawa in Berlin to name but three off the cuff.
I have always thought Prokofiev would be rather saddened that his Symphony No.1 would become one of his most popular and certainly most played works. Not that it isn’t a glorious work but simply because it is so unlike most of his other music. Whenever it is slated for a programme you will find the string players scrabbling to get hold of practice parts as it provides as severe an examination of neat and precise playing as any in the repertoire. The Czech Philharmonic of 1976 vintage do themselves great credit especially given the rather dry and close acoustic they are given. It’s the least appealing engineering of the set and does not help offset the impression that for all its neatness of execution this is a rather unsmiling performance with little twinkle or bonhomie on show. A quick comparison shows that Järvi and Kitajenko share similar tempi but the revelation is Weller who in the Finale tests the brilliant LSO with a tempo bang on the score’s marking of minim (half-note) = 152. Other of these different sets’ general characteristics start to show through too. The Chandos set was much feted on original release - indeed the disc of the 6th Symphony won a Gramophone Award. Listening now one can hear the ‘glamour’ of the Chandos engineering allowing exciting brass and percussion to cut through in a typically ripe acoustic but on further consideration it is also possible to hear the SNO strings being tested by Prokofiev’s often ungrateful writing. Across the cycle as a whole Kitajenko favours a broader more epic approach in which he is helped by fine digital engineering and wholly committed played by his excellent Cologne players. Epic works better in some of the symphonies than others. Weller is little short of a revelation; vintage Decca engineering highlights playing of real virtuosity from both his London orchestras. He seems more able to mould his style to the specific demands of each different work.
Has there ever been a greater difference between one composer’s first two symphonies than Prokofiev’s? After the elegance and jocularity of No.1 comes the grinding industrial realism of No.2. The opening of the work still shocks with the unrelenting dissonance and jarring aggression of its writing. Interestingly the effect registers - to my ear at least - equally well at a heavy pounding tempo (Košler and Kitajenko) or something more fleet and incisive (Weller). Järvi lies somewhere between. The brazen Czech brass register really well with an edge to their tone and a blaring almost crude quality that seems wholly appropriate. Again the string players show little or none of the strain of their Scottish counterparts. Indeed, the three symphonies 2-4 strike me as consistently impressive. Unfortunately, the good impressions there come shudderingly to a halt with as dull and uninspired a reading of the 5th Symphony as I have heard. Playing and engineering are perfectly good but Košler seems unable to navigate the kaleidoscopic range of moods and orchestral colours Prokofiev crams into this score. Given that this is probably the second most popular Prokofiev symphony after the Classical this comes close to being a deal-breaker certainly for collectors looking for a first set. The disc is redeemed however by a very fine Scythian Suite. This is the work most often cited as the composer’s closest response to the pagan grandeur of the Rite of Spring. Probably for the only time in the set one hankers after recording techniques that can fully expand to cope with the near-absurd excesses of the writing. Weller includes the suite as one of his set’s “extras” (Kitajenko and Järvi offer the symphonies only albeit including both versions of No.4) and here the Decca engineers show just what geniuses they were with a recording of spectacular bite and amplitude.
Risking the accusation of gross generalisation I would say that together with the 5th, the 6th Symphony represents Prokofiev’s most successful fusion of the motoric energy of his early works with the angular lyricism that packs such a punch in ballets such as Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. Košler’s 6th gets one of the best recordings technically although the bass drum - rather heavily used in this work - and timpani are muddied by the ample Rudolfinum acoustic. I do find myself liking so much of the sound the Czech Philharmonic makes. Yes, the orchestral piano is all but inaudible and important percussion such as the tam-tam all but passes you by however, much of the other detail registers clearly and with great character. Košler is better than in the 5th but, sad to relate, there is a kind of emotional lethargy that follows the dynamic/tempo contours. Fast and/or loud passages work well but the extended slow and ruminative pages become becalmed. The phrasing lapses into the generic and the great arching string phrases - for all their technical accomplishment - do not yearn and ache as they surely should. It is rather frightening to realise that Järvi’s multi-award winning version was recorded over quarter of a century ago; it still sounds very fine and in many ways the range of moods and colours in the work suits Järvi’s style to a tee. As such it remains my favourite of that cycle.
Not all is doom and gloom though; the 7th, noticeably more elegiac and generally lighter in spirit than the two symphonies that precede it, works far better and seems more naturally in tune with Košler’s approach; indeed, this is probably the best performance in the entire set. His choice of the original reflective ending is the right one I am sure and here it sounds very beautiful. Throughout the performance the orchestra play with real finesse - the second movement Allegretto especially fine. The smaller scale of the work helps avoid the longueurs that beset the central Largo in the 6th Symphony.
So a set of mixed blessings. Always a delight to hear the Czech Philharmonic and here they are in consistently fine form recorded well. Košler proves to be a solid, sometimes fine, sometimes uninspired guide. For what it is worth, the very brief liner adds little to one’s knowledge of the works or the composer. Certainly of interest to Prokofiev fanatics but ultimately too much of a mixed bag to deserve a ringing endorsement.
Too much of a mixed bag to deserve a ringing endorsement.
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies