Melodiya, formerly the major state owned record label of the Soviet
Union, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary year. Here Melodiya has
reached into its massive archive and re-issued its 1965/67 analogue set
of the Prokofiev symphonies.
Of the major twentieth-century composers Prokofiev doesn’t receive the
attention he deserves for his symphonies. Herbert von Karajan, so
prolific in the recording studio, only recorded the Classical Symphony
and the Symphony No. 5
. Sir Simon Rattle too has only released a recording of the Symphony No. 5
and that was with the CBSO over twenty years ago in 1992. In retrospect
I had not given the Prokofiev symphonies sufficient attention until my
eyes were opened by attending a stunning Berlin concert of the Symphony No. 3
by the visiting London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski at the Philharmonie in 2010.
The Ukrainian-born Prokofiev wrote seven symphonies which span the
years 1916/1952 and inhabit a recognisably individual sound-world.
Prokofiev tended to write music as an emotional response to the
challenges created by significant world events. It has been said that
his symphonies mirror the turbulent history of the twentieth century.
Melodiya has managed to fit this Rozhdestvensky set of the Prokofiev
symphonies onto only three discs and placed them in order of
composition. The Symphony No. 1 in D major
Op. 25 was written in 1917 with Prokofiev adopting a neo-classical
style in the manner of Haydn and Mozart. Now universally known as the Classical Symphony
it received its premièred in 1918 just a few months before Prokofiev
emigrated from Russia to America. A much loved work I should think it
is played more than all the other six symphonies put together. This is
polished playing from the Moscow RSO under Rozhdestvensky that mainly
feels vivacious with a youthful zest. Only a curiously leaden feel to
the opening movement spoils the overall effect.
Composed in 1924 whilst living in Paris the two movement Symphony No. 2
was Prokofiev’s response to a Parisian audience looking to his
progressivism as a composer. This symphony that Prokofiev designed to
be “made of iron and steel
is given a lucid and compelling reading - brash and robust in the first
movement and suitably engaging in the second movement, a theme and
Prokofiev’s dramatic Symphony No. 3
was first heard under Pierre Monteux in 1929 in Paris. There is extensive reuse of material from his opera The Fiery Angel
The writing may be deficient in overall coherence but the committed
Rozhdestvensky doesn’t shirk from the challenges and delivers a
well-judged performance. The opening Moderato
nocturnal winter scene that sends an icy chill down the spine and the
final movement advances powerfully forward like an unstoppable war
In 1936 Prokofiev had moved back to the Soviet Union. In 1947 he set about completing the Symphony No. 4 in C major
Op. 112. This is an extensive revision of the Symphony No. 4, Op. 47
written almost twenty years earlier. In the C major score Prokofiev
recycles material from his ballet The Prodigal Son
Rozhdestvensky’s Moscow players revel in the wide-ranging moods with
resilient, sure-footed playing. The opening movement is memorable for
its energetic, brightly lit playing and the Andante tranquillo
just overflows with passion.
Although its gestation period was whilst the Second World War was at its fiercest Prokofiev completed his Symphony No. 5
in just one month in 1945. Something of a connoisseur choice, this is a
work that a number of eminent conductors have championed. Focused and
exercising a firm grip Rozhdestvensky excels in this marvellous score
with its sheer physical excitement. I especially admire the passionate
and colourful opening movement with its cinematic air. In the
passionate Adagio how expertly Rozhdestvensky tightens and loosens the
intensity of the densely textured writing.
The Symphony No. 6
completed in 1947 is undoubtedly the
composer’s reaction to the war years and to his own failing health.
Falling foul of the Soviet anti-formalism policies the work was
denounced by the authorities. Proving a faithful interpreter
Rozhdestvensky supplies plenty of rhythmic clarity. I love the way the
stern central Largo
grinds its way menacingly forward and the raucous final Vivace
has a surfeit of potent energy.
A triumph at its 1952 première in Moscow the Symphony No. 7
was the last of his works he would hear; he died some five months
later. In indomitable form Rozhdestvensky captures that special Russian
colouration infused in the writing. The opening movement is evocative
of a swirling fantasy world with darkly mysterious low strings
providing underpinning. A favourite movement is the songful Andante espressivo
which is rich in romance and can easily be heard to evoke the innocent love of a fairy-tale Princess.
There are a number of fine sets of the Prokofiev symphonies and those
most likely to be encountered are from: LSO/Gergiev, Berliner
Philharmoniker/Ozawa, Orchestra National of Paris/Rostropovich,
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Kitajenko, LSO/Weller and Royal Scottish
National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi. Overall this re-issued Melodiya set
from Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky is hard to
beat. Recorded nearly fifty years ago in Moscow the satisfactory sound
quality is clear and decently balanced. Although there are a few rough
edges the playing makes a striking impact and there is satisfying
consistency of performance.
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies