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
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
much-celebrated cycle for Chandos springs to mind,
as does Dmitri
for Phoenix Edition. Sakari
’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
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
– coupled with a white-hot Alexander Nevsky
– which is my benchmark for the piece.
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
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
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