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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D major Classical Op. 25 (1916-17)* [13:44]
Dreams, Op. 6 (Symphonic Tableau) (1910) [9:26]
Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1924-25) [33:44]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Sala São Paulo, Brazil, 29-31 August 2013 and *20-22 March 2014
NAXOS 8.573353 [56:55]

Marin Alsop is certainly one classy lady. She is gradually building a legacy of superb recordings and this latest CD continues to reach the high standards she has set in her previous releases. Naxos also supports her yet again with sound of true demonstration quality. It’s the first time that I have encountered the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra but they are an impressive band and clearly respond to Ms Alsop in a very positive way.

The Classical Symphony is hardly short of good recordings. This one is full of light, dancing rhythms and in the main the music is allowed to speak for itself. The opening movement is played at a sensible tempo that allows the intricate inner parts to come through. It also avoids the trap of sounding rushed and breathless and what we get instead is some very elegant playing. The opening of the slow movement has the much dreaded, highly exposed violin entry, way up on the E string. This is the only place that the orchestra falls below the highest standards. The violins sound thin and tentative for the first couple of bars. Things then settle down. Having said that, it sounds tentative in the majority of recordings. Here, the 1950s Philharmonia under Efrem Kurtz is still matchless. The gavotte is great fun but listeners need to be made aware that there is an unusual tenuto built into the phrasing. I like it but others could find it a wilful and irritating gesture. The finale is despatched with controlled high spirits. At one point Ms Alsop must have given the percussion section an encouraging smile. One timpani entry is particularly delicious. The orchestra plays with great polish and tight ensemble in this attractive romp.

One of the attractions of the CD is the inclusion of one of the composer’s early orchestral works, Dreams. You would be hard pressed to recognise this as Prokofiev’s music at all. The atmospheric opening and closing sections are reminiscent of the music written by Sibelius in his Four Legends and other passages bring Bax, of all people, to mind. This is a nine minute exercise in impressionism and it is enjoyable but ultimately not especially memorable. Prokofiev had still to find his real voice.

Now to the best part of the CD: a stunning version of the Second Symphony. What a piece this is. I’ve long held a torch for the old Martinon version on Vox, despite the thin opaque quality of the recording. This new Naxos disc totally outclasses it in terms of recording and orchestral playing. Prokofiev must have been in one heck of a bad mood when he penned the first movement. He has written an eleven minute onslaught full of anger, bitterness and violence. It really does assault the ear but in this recording it is magnificent and exciting. There are few moments of repose to be heard but Ms Alsop seizes on them and succeeds in offering some short-lived respite to the listener along the way. She also succeeds in bringing some light and shade to the proceedings. The orchestra is inspired into giving the performance of a lifetime in stunning sound. When the second movement begins it makes you think “what was that all about?” The punch-drunk listener is immediately taken to a gentler place and straightaway the composer presents a glorious oboe theme. This is the basis for the six variations that follow. The music offers greater contrast than the first movement and is more representative of Prokofiev’s art. Each variation is clearly delineated and the range of emotions is remarkable: Fast, mercurial music; beautiful slow passages; vigorous percussive writing; patches of aggression and violence; a pile-driving march. This is very imaginative music and it’s almost as if the composer is rewarding us for sticking with him after being severely beaten up for the first eleven minutes of the symphony. The orchestra is in top form and displays great tonal beauty when called for, brilliant execution and panache.

Prokofiev’s Second is a tough nut to crack. The opening movement can make you reach for the off button on the CD player within a couple of minutes. My advice would be to get hold of this new recording, stick with it, give it time and the rewards will soon follow. The Classical Symphony and Dreams are worthy fillers to a great performance of this fascinating work. This really is the real deal.
John Whitmore

Another review ...

John Quinn and I recently reviewed the BD-A version of this CD and we were both astounded by the realistic sound of the recording. It is spectacular. Now I have the conventional CD with which to compare that recording. As to the performances, I still think they are some of the best to be had of these works. I am especially taken with Marin Alsop’s account of the Symphony No. 2 — not an easy work to bring off. As I mentioned in the earlier review, Alsop shows a more “human” side to the symphony than I realized was ever there. It has given me a whole new appreciation of this knotty work. I refer readers to the previous review for a detailed discussion of Alsop’s performances with comparisons to other favourite versions of these particular pieces.

I fully expected to be somewhat disappointed with the sound on the conventional CD, but am happy to report that the sound here is also superb. The differences between the BD-A and this CD are really quite slight. The main thing I noticed in doing a direct comparison, track by track, is that the sound on the BD-A disc is a bit warmer, more refined. When the strings are loud, they can be a little harsh on the standard CD. The solo instruments, too, are just that much more tangible and vibrant on the BD-A disc. There seems to be more space around the instruments in that format. Still, the sound on the CD is hugely impressive and I don’t want to make too much of the differences. If I hadn’t had the BD-A disc with which to compare, I would have also been blown away by the sound on the CD.

Other than the booklet cover photos being different—for the BD-A disc there is a reproduction of Malevich’s Woman with a Rake and for the CD a portrait of a younger Prokofiev — the two productions are basically the same. The BD-A disc is housed in the taller case typical of Blu-rays and the timings for the individual works vary slightly — difference in pauses between movements. For anyone who is interested in these particular pieces, or indeed in Prokofiev at all, this attractively priced CD is very well worth getting.

Leslie Wright

Previous reviews (BD-A): John Quinn and Leslie Wright