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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.44 (1928) [33.29]
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 (1952) [30.54]
Symphony No.7 alternative ending [0.29]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England, July 2013
ONYX 4137 [65.08]

This is the first release in a projected complete Prokofiev symphony cycle from Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth orchestra. According to the press briefing that I received with it the intention is to feature ‘quite a few surprises’, including music from the early (1902) Symphony in G and works such as Dreams, Op. 6, Two Poems for orchestra and Women’s Chorus, Op. 7 and Autumnal Sketch, Op. 8. So, it looks as if there will be repertoire interest in this cycle. In any event, if future releases maintain the standard of this initial instalment then this Karabits cycle will be a strong proposition.
Both of these symphonies recycled music from stage works. In the case of the Third Symphony Prokofiev used material from his opera The Fiery Angel, which he despaired of seeing on the stage – it was not produced in his lifetime, achieving a first production in 1954. Many listeners, myself included, will not know the opera and although the conductor comments in the booklet that it’s important to know the sources of the material used in each movement I think the reality is that many who hear this symphony never will achieve that familiarity with the opera: we will simply have to appreciate the symphony as a free-standing score. Incidentally, I noticed that Karabits goes on to say ‘I remember looking closely at The Fiery Angel while preparing the Third Symphony for a performance and recording, and it didn’t really give me answers on how to interpret the symphony – it only gave a source of inspiration for some of the ideas and tempi.’
Well, however he arrived at his interpretation I’d say that the results are very impressive. It’s not an easy work to appreciate – though less challenging than its immediate predecessor – but Karabits and the Bournemouth players make a strong case for it. The BSO offers spiky and precise playing in the first movement yet they also play the more lyrical passages well. In this movement especially a good deal of Prokofiev’s orchestration is fascinating and inventive and the musicians – and the Onyx engineers – allow us to appreciate the detail and the quirkiness to the full.
The delicacy of the shadowy writing in the second movement is well brought out as is the brittle writing in the Allegro agitato with its spooky glissandi writing for the violins. The baleful power that characterises a good deal of the last movement comes across very well. I don’t think it’s accidental that we don’t hear all seven of Prokofiev’s symphonies frequently in the concert hall. The first of them is a delight, the Fifth and Sixth are masterpieces and the Seventh is underrated. However, the other three symphonies are uneven and, for me, the Third is easier to admire than to love. Nonetheless, Karabits is a highly persuasive guide.
The Seventh recycles material that Prokofiev wrote as incidental music for a proposed staging of Eugene Onegin in 1936. The staging did not take place. It has sometimes been claimed that the composer intended the work as a symphony for children and it’s certainly true that the music is much more direct and approachable than what we hear in the Third. Karabits describes it as ‘a very tragic work’ and he seems to bring out the darkness that lurks behind the bitter-sweet lyricism – very reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet – in the first movement. I think he does this movement very well and the playing is ardent. The second movement, which has the character of a quick waltz, is acute and well-sprung in this performance. That’s followed by a very successful reading of the Andante espressivo, a movement in which again I find echoes of Romeo and Juliet. The scampering finale comes off very well and when Prokofiev’s trademark soaring lyrical theme is reached (5:20) the strings really sing it out expressively. The usual ending, gradually slowing with a prominent chiming glockenspiel, is played to bring to an end a very successful reading of Prokofiev’s last symphony.
Except that it doesn’t quite bring it to an end because there’s a ‘bonus track’ consisting of the short, fast alternative ending that Prokofiev later provided but which few conductors ever play – rightly, in my view, since it seems superficial and half-hearted. What I don’t understand is why we get just 0:29 of music. If the idea was to let listeners hear the alternative would it not have been better to offer, as an extra track, the complete finale with this alternative ending? After all, with modern digital technology those bars could easily have been edited into the performance of the finale in substitution. Karabits says that this is how he usually performs the work in public, ‘ending softly and then adding the fast ending as a quasi-encore.’ I’d respectfully suggest that that’s the worst of all worlds. If I were to attend a performance of this symphony I wouldn’t want to hear two endings. As it is, when I listen to the recording in the future I can’t imagine that I’ll do anything other than to hit the ‘stop’ button immediately before the ‘bonus track’, though had the full movement been offered with the alternative ending then once in a while I might have programmed that instead of the original finale.
However, this is a small point and the main thing is that this is a disc that contains two excellent Prokofiev symphony recordings. The recorded sound offers a good front-to-back perspective of the orchestra. Importantly, a good deal of detail can be heard and the large climaxes are comfortably accommodated. The sound seemed rather close and bright on my equipment. The brightness is completely appropriate for Prokofiev but as to the closeness I had the impression that I was in a stalls seat just a few rows back from the violins.
This is an auspicious launch for the Karabits Prokofiev cycle and I shall be very interested to hear future instalments.
John Quinn
Previous review: Dave Billinge

Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies