Kirill Karabits, in his spoken introduction to a performance at the Lighthouse in Poole, made much of the ear battering to expect in Prokofiev's 2nd Symphony and certainly some of the audience looked a bit shell-shocked when we reached the interval. He could have said much the same for the opening movement of the 3rd Symphony recorded here. This is the composer at his wildest and it makes huge demands on the orchestra and conductor. Cycles of these seven works (eight if we count the 4th in both versions) are not very common. This disc is the first of a new cycle and it sets enviable standards. Comparing it with the old Chandos CDs by Järvi and the Scottish National and the even older set made for Melodiya in the 1960s by Rozhdestvensky and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, leaves one in no doubt that the Bournemouth Orchestra can hold its head high in the most august company. These two performances are terrific and in some respects better than the above competition. Perhaps I should admit I have not heard the LSO/Gergiev discs which were well received here on Music Web by Dominy Clements. The opening movement of No.3 is the fastest I have heard since Rozhdestvensky and gains enormously from that tempo. All the fury, drama and indeed lyricism present in both works make the fullest impact. With the 2nd and 5th in performance and scheduled for recording, and the remainder due to be done in the 2014-15 season this could set a new standard. The Bournemouth Orchestra have been on a high for several seasons now with Kirill Karabits and here they sound magnificent. With the BSO now over 120 years old I should note there have been other high points under such as Silvestri, Berglund and Litton during my 55+ years of concertgoing life, so we should not be surprised.
Prokofiev's 3rd Symphony, like the 4th, was derived from theatre music. The 3rd is to a large extent a re-working of themes from his opera The Fiery Angel and indeed it only reached wider public notice after his death and after the opera had its first performance in the 50s. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th were almost ignored in his lifetime and they are indeed made of tougher stuff than the light and witty 1st or the grand Tchaikovskian 5th. Only the 6th Symphony again explored the darker recesses of Prokofiev's imagination. The 7th is lyrical and lively and more like a ballet than a symphony in tone. It contains some of Prokofiev's very finest melodies. Karabits includes the 'populist' ending as an extra track but performs the main work with its more appropriate, quiet, ending. His comments on both works make up the interesting insert notes: a refreshing change from the more usual contracted-out programme note.
The one problem I have with this CD is the recording. It is undoubtedly clear and dynamic, all the score can be heard in detail, but I have to ask what happened to the balance? Sessions at the Lighthouse involve using the centre of the hall as a flat space and it can sound very spacious, notably on Naxos' 5.1 surround recordings. Here in CD stereo the violins are bunched on the extreme left and the brass sound rather more prominent than usual from the right. There is a hole-in-the-middle effect which I associate with 1950s stereo but have rarely heard in more recent recordings. My ancient Melodiya LPs sound much better balanced. This recording team have made excellent recordings in this venue in the past (the Naxos Bernstein CD for instance) so I wonder if pressures were applied à la Karajan/DG by those who should have kept out of the control booth. Since the entire cycle is due to be recorded I hope that whatever happened technically in the Lighthouse last July is not repeated because the BSO and Karabits deserve, and usually get, better. Finally a note to the CD-text editor at Onyx to check the spelling of Prokoviev (sic) and try to get it right next time.
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies