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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Classical, Op. 25 (1916-17)* [13:47]
Dreams, Op. 6 (Symphonic Tableau) (1910) [9:26]
Symphony No 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1924-25) [33:46]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Sala São Paulo, Brazil, 29-31 August 2013 and *20-22 March 2014
24-bit, 96 kHz 5.1 Surround – DTS-HD Master Audio; 2.0 Stereo - PCM
NAXOS BD-A NBD0044 [57:00]

This is the third volume in Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle from Brazil. I’ve heard the previous instalments – the Fourth Symphony as a CD (review) and the Fifth Symphony first as a CD (review) and later in BD-A format (review). When I heard the Fifth as a BD-A I didn’t detect a significant advantage over the CD sound. This time it’s different: although I’ve not heard the CD of this release, the BD-A sound, to which I listened in its 2.0 Stereo – PCM version, is a revelation.

My first encounter with the disc was when I heard the first movement in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio just recently. My own equipment isn’t as powerful or as analytical as the kit that we have in the Studio but even so the BD-A sound is extremely impressive; and that’s the case throughout the disc and not just during the sonic onslaught of the Second Symphony’s first movement.

That movement is quite astonishing. Richard Whitehouse assures us in his very useful notes that ‘sonata form [is] audible behind the onslaught’. Well, I’ll take his word for it. Unless you’re really familiar with the music I think you’d struggle to discern fully the musical argument. What I can say, though, is that the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra plays it magnificently: the orchestra is on fire. The music seems pretty unrelenting though in fact there are passages of relative contrast and it’s enormously to the credit of Marin Alsop and her players that the listener is aware of the light and shade in the music. It’s mostly unforgiving stuff, though; the music aggressive, even domineering. Prokofiev apparently sought to write music of ‘Iron and Steel’ in this score and he succeeded. The Naxos engineers report all the garish detail in the score and every section of the orchestra is excitingly communicated – sample the sound of the percussion in the last minute or so.

The symphony’s structure is very strange. It consists of just two movements, the second of which – a theme and six variations – is twice the length of the first. I learned from the notes that Prokofiev considered revising the score into three movements but never got round to it; how he would have accomplished this without writing additional music I’m unsure. After the tumult of the first movement the second has a surprising amount of quieter music though Prokofiev rarely seems to settle; the music is almost constantly restless. Naxos helpfully track each variation separately though the end of one and the start of the next is usually pretty clear in any case. The performance of the movement seems to me to be very successful with Alsop and the orchestra conveying the different facets of the music as we go along. Once again the recording is admirably clear and present so that each section of the orchestra can be heard distinctly, which is a huge asset.

The Second Symphony has never really established itself in the repertoire. Even nowadays opportunities to hear it are relatively rare and usually only within the context of complete cycles of the seven symphonies. A performance – and recording – such as this will help the appreciation of it enormously.

We’re on much more familiar territory with the Classical Symphony. I liked this dapper São Paulo performance very much. The first movement isn’t rushed off its feet; it’s taken at a pace which is sensible but full of life and the music is well articulated. The delightful inner movements are nicely turned and the scampering finale is deftly done. Overall it’s a polished and enjoyable performance. As for the sound, every strand in the orchestra is clearly heard but in a very natural way.

Marin Alsop also gives us a chance to hear the early orchestral work, Dreams. Richard Whitehouse tells us that this comes from a phase in Prokofiev’s career when he was briefly in thrall to Scriabin. It’s a pleasant piece – and it’s well done here – but clearly Prokofiev was still working towards finding his own voice as a composer. The music is mainly quiet although there’s a warm climax shortly before the end.

This is an excellent instalment in Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle and I look forward to the remaining volumes. In sonic terms this is not only the best Naxos BD-A to come my way so far but one of the best of all the BD-As that I’ve heard to date.

John Quinn

And a further review ...

The first thing one notices when listening to this Blu-ray audio disc is the life-like sound. You are listening to these performances from a good seat midway in the concert hall. This is my first experience with audio-only Blu-ray. Based on this experience, it seems the way to go, and Naxos is to be congratulated for its role in leading the way.

This is the third volume in Marin Alsop’s survey of Prokofiev orchestral music with the São Paulo Symphony and it is every bit as good as the previous one with the Symphony No. 4 and Prodigal Son ballet I reviewed here earlier. I was disappointed with her initial entry of the Symphony No. 5, although the coupling of the The Year 1941 was an interesting novelty. Now the filler is the early Scriabinesque “symphonic tableau,” Dreams. This mostly subdued and mellow piece gives barely a hint of the Prokofiev to come. It’s one of those pieces to fool friends with as part of a “Who’s the composer?” guessing game. Nonetheless, it is pleasant enough and does not outstay its nine-plus minutes. The only other recording I’ve heard is the one by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw Orchestra and this one compares well with that.

The main interest here is in the two symphonies, and two works of greater contrast could hardly be found. There is a great deal of competition when it comes to these symphonies, but Alsop is fully up to the task. Her Classical Symphony really sparkles with apt tempi. She is light on her feet throughout unlike Valery Gergiev, whose heavy-handed account is the one blot on his otherwise excellent set of symphonies on Philips. The only place where I found Alsop mannered was in her treatment of the third movement, Gavotte, when she holds onto a note a bit longer than necessary before proceeding to the next. This is a slight blemish in her otherwise delightful performance of this Prokofiev chestnut. I still have a special fondness for Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on DG that, if anything, is even more sprightly. No mannerisms there, except for the unusual timpani part in the first movement — the provenance of which to my knowledge has never been explained. Nor have I heard more characterful bassoons in the Gavotte than Abbado’s.

The Symphony No. 2 is a much tougher nut to crack, as witnessed by too many performances that leave the listener exhausted without being in any way fulfilled. This symphony is from Prokofiev’s “iron and steel” period while he was living in France. It is structurally modeled after Beethoven’s last piano sonata, but the first movement at least reminds me more of the composer’s own Scythian Suite than anything else in its violence. Yet Alsop lightens things up and one is aware of a lyricism that can easily go unnoticed. Gergiev’s account is one of the best in his cycle and indeed makes quite an impact, but next to Alsop’s his recording sounds rather airless and cold. This very well may be due to the different recording venues — London’s Barbican Centre vs. the Sala São Paulo. The second movement, theme and six variations, presents a much broader range of moods and represents Prokofiev at his best. The oboe solo that begins the theme, once heard, is hard to dislodge. The oboist on this new recording contributes an especially beautiful and mellow solo. It is outstanding, but then so is the London Symphony oboist in Gergiev’s account. The first variation is mysterious and foreboding. Alsop with her tempo slightly slower than Gergiev brings out the mystery very well and captures the mood with more involvement. The fast and slithery second variation suits Gergiev to a tee, and his timpani and bass drum really make an impact. Alsop focuses more on the woodwinds and is also good, but I’d give the nod to Gergiev for this variation. There is little to choose between them in the scherzo-like third variation. Alsop seems to be somewhat faster and is very exciting, but with Gergiev’s slightly slower tempo one can get the full measure of the woodwind parts. The fourth variation begins with a poignant string theme that shows the way Prokofiev will head in the future with such works as Romeo and Juliet. Alsop scores here with woodwinds and strings melting in their beauty. The flute playing is particularly lovely. Gergiev, on the other hand, nearly spoils his performance with his grunting that the microphone picks up all too clearly. The fifth variation launches a vigorous string melody, shrieking winds and pounding percussion before becoming whimsical. In some ways, it reminds one of the violence of the symphony’s first movement. Both Alsop and Gergiev are excellent, with Gergiev emphasizing the power and Alsop the whimsy. The finale starts with a “monster” march on the double bass, contrabassoon and tuba that is extremely effective in Gergiev’s performance and appropriate to the Barbican acoustic. The pile-driving music also could not be more forcefully put forth than Gergiev. Alsop, while less powerful, finds much interesting detail in the strings, winds and brass that is not as apparent with Gergiev. They both excel in the transition back to the oboe theme and the quiet, equivocal final bars. I would not want to be without either interpretation, for Alsop and Gergiev complement each other well. Alsop, if anything, shows a more “human” side to the symphony that I had never realized was there. It could well become one of my favourite Prokofiev works.

I have not heard the standard CD version of this recording, but cannot imagine it captures the realism of this Blu-ray. Marin Alsop is turning out to be a major player in the Prokofiev symphony stakes and I will be eager to hear her next instalment in the series. As usual with Naxos, Richard Whitehouse contributes well-written and detailed notes on the works.

Leslie Wright

Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies