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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 112 (revised version) (1929-30/1947) [40:18] L’enfant prodigue, Op. 46 (Ballet in Three Scenes) (1929) [37:55]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Sala, São Paulo, Brazil, 27-30 November and 2-3 December 2012 (Symphony), 4-7 July and 9 July 2012 (Ballet) DDD NAXOS 8.573186 [78:13]
Having reviewed the first volume in this Prokofiev symphony series, I did not hold out much hope for future installments. Alsop’s Prokofiev Fifth was a rather dull affair, but I am happy to report that this new volume has left me with quite the opposite impression. Her account of the Fourth Symphony has everything that the Fifth lacked. The same recording venue was used and the same engineer employed, so the difference must lie wholly at the conductor’s door. Furthermore, this well-filled CD comes with what is clearly the most appropriate disc mate, the very ballet from which Prokofiev fashioned his symphony.
For one thing, the symphony itself is on the whole a lighter work than its successor and not far removed from the ballet. It may not be one of the composer’s greatest works and certainly not in the same league as the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. Yet, it is in many ways very attractive with some quite delicious tunes and colorful orchestration. As a symphony, it works for me. Interestingly, Prokofiev extensively revised his first, 1929-30, version, adding new material to make the work roughly a third longer than the original. The revised version that Alsop performs here is not necessarily superior to the earlier version, but the added material does not detract from it either. They are just different works. Valery Gergiev recorded both versions in his Prokofiev symphony cycle. He was more successful with the much terser earlier version than with expansive revision. Alsop, on the other hand, seems well suited to the later version, and the warmer sound of the recording also benefits her interpretation. She brings out the lyricism prevalent in the score, but also rises to the drama of the work’s climaxes. The very ending of the symphony is quite powerful and Alsop does not disappoint here. The orchestra also excels throughout, no more so than in the third movement where the woodwinds really shine. Alsop captures all the wry humor of that movement as well as I have ever heard. This account of a somewhat problematic symphony is a joy from beginning to end.
It was an inspired idea to have the very ballet whose themes are used in the symphony accompanying it. It is also obvious that the ballet is not on the level of Prokofiev’s greatest scores in the genre, namely Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. However, it does contain many memorable tunes - those he later used in the symphony - plus some dramatic passages and is very well orchestrated. One particularly striking part is at the beginning of track 9 of Scene II, The prodigal son and the seductress. There the bassoon and strings have a haunting melody not used in the symphony before more material familiar from the symphony is heard. Then two clarinets and bass clarinet have a virtuosic passage later in the scene (track 11, Pillage) that is quite extraordinary. Again, the São Paulo Symphony plays its heart out for Alsop.
So, Marin Alsop has redeemed herself in these performances. If the remainder of her series is on this level, it will be very good, indeed. As usual with Naxos, there are useful notes with a good discussion of the symphony and its relation to the ballet by Keith Anderson.