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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 Classical (1917) [13:22]
Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1924) [32:55]
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44 (1928) [32:40]
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 112 (1930, rev. 1947 version) [38:25]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1945) [41:23]
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1947) [38:53]
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op.131 (1952) [31:05]
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. 1965/67 Moscow, USSR
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 011797 [3 CDs: 78:58 + 80:06 + 70:04]

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 variations.

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 evokes a nocturnal winter scene that sends an icy chill down the spine and the final movement advances powerfully forward like an unstoppable war machine.
 
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.
 
Michael Cookson
 
Masterwork Index: Prokofiev symphonies