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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [45:21]
Scythian Suite (Ala et Lolly), Op. 20 (1915-1916) [20:49]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2014, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2124 SACD [67:00]

I discovered with Sakari Oramo’s Nielsen symphonies that writing off an entire cycle based on just one instalment is very unwise. To ensure I don’t do that again I’ve elected to review Andrew Litton’s Prokofiev Fifth, even though I found his Sixth rather disappointing. The Bergen Phil are a fine band, as their work with Andrew Davis, Edward Gardner and Juanjo Mena so amply demonstrates; not only that, Chandos and Hyperion seem to get better results in the Grieg Hall than BIS have managed thus far.

Then there’s the stiff competition; Neeme Järvi’s much-celebrated cycle for Chandos springs to mind, as does Dmitri Kitaienko’s for Phoenix Edition. Sakari Oramo’s Ondine Fifth and Sixth mustn’t be overlooked either. All offer very different views of the Fifth, Prokofiev’s great wartime symphony, and that in itself suggests the work responds well to opposing interpretations. Oramo’s is a case in point, for he taps into a vein of lyricism that others don’t always find. He also has a very transparent recording that exposes much of the score’s inner workings.

The Järvi Fifth dates from the conductor’s halcyon days with the RSNO – then the Scottish National Orchestra – which yielded particularly memorable recordings of Richard Strauss, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Revisiting his Prokofiev Fifth after a long break I discovered the performance has all the spunk and spike that I remember, although the treble is fiercer and the big moments are rougher than I recall. I have no such qualms about his Scythian Suite – coupled with a white-hot Alexander Nevsky – which is my benchmark for the piece.

Litton’s Andante is powerful enough, but alongside Järvi and Kitaienko it takes a little while to limber up. Admittedly, this is the kind of music that lends itself to large, gruff gestures, but as Oramo’s forensic reading confirms there’s more to this score than that. For sheer excitement, though, Järvi is hard to beat; as for Kitaienko he plays the music with a a bold, deep-rooted conviction that’s impressive too. Litton isn’t quite so overt, so visceral, but I soon came to realise that's no bad thing. The recording is exceptionally vivid, although there's an occasional hardness in the treble.

Moving on, Litton’s perky Allegro marcato is nicely phrased, and he captures the score’s veers and vacillations very well indeed. Now this is more like it. The Bergen Phil are well up to the challenge and the BIS balances are much more believable than Phoenix's; while that certainly helps to soften the music’s sharpest edges it doesn't undermine the thrust and energy of Litton's reading. Oramo’s version is the most pliant and personal one here, but some may feel that robs the music of its pith and piquancy. As for Järvi he's as taut and compelling as ever in this movement, a reminder of just how good a team he and the RSNO once were.

The yearning Adagio with its inner musings and gentle tread finds Litton at his most thoughtful and communicative. There’s a pleasing lucidity and openness here that's most welcome. In short, this is a very persuasive account of this lovely, multi-faceted movement. Built on a smaller, more intimate scale Oramo’s Adagio is the most lyrical and colourful; the Ondine recording has a very strong stereo spread, and it’s closer to BIS's in terms of subtlety and tonal sophistication. Unfortunately Oramo allows the pace to flag, which is a shame as I like what he’s trying to do. Both are commendably refined, and that makes for more congenial performances than either Järvi's or Kitaienko's; frankly, the latter have a raw edge and restless angularity that can be a tad unremitting at times.

In that rather forceful context Litton’s frisky Allegro giocoso may seem rather reticent, although it’s actually alert and keenly paced. Not only that, there's a joy, a sparkle, to this music that brisker and more declamatory performances tend to miss. I'm also extremely imprssed by the recorded sound, which really brings out the score's muances and competing timbres. Here and in the symphony as a whole Litton is nearer to the affectionate and reflective Oramo than he is to the volatile Kitaienko/Järvi. I can live with both extremes, but it's a relief - and a pleasure - to hear Prokofiev performances that don't sound like they're being forged on a factory floor.

The Scythian Suite gets a typically febrile outing, with thumping bass and glittering treble. Järvi may have the rhythmic edge, not to mention the most spectacular recording, but Litton’s no slouch either. As with the symphony he combines slam with subtlety, and there's a mervellous sense of a tale being told. He’s aided and abetted by wide-ranging sonics and an orchestra that's in tip-top condition. Indeed, this strikes me as the very best of BIS’s Grieg Hall productions to date, and that augurs well for the rest of Litton’s Prokofiev cycle.

Despite some initial reservations I’m delighted to welcome this addition to the Prokofiev discography. These are performances that grow in stature with each hearing; in fact, not only is Litton's Scythian Suite every bit as thrilling as Järvi's, it's also the more illuminating - the most interesting - of the two.

A terrific pairing, very well played and recorded; here’s to the next instalment.

Dan Morgan
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