Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 100 (1944) [43:59]
Symphony No. 4 in C, Op. 47 (1930) [23:17]
Dreams, Op. 6 (1910) [9:50]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2014, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England
ONYX 4147 [77:28]

This is the third instalment of Kirill Karabits’ Prokofiev cycle. Volume I included the Third and Seventh symphonies (review) while the first two symphonies were in Volume II (review). I believe that there is one more release to come in the series; clearly that will include the great Sixth Symphony but I wonder if Karabits also proposes to include the 1947 revision of the Fourth Symphony, Op 112? That would be most interesting as here he gives us Prokofiev’s first thoughts on that score.

I found it very interesting to come to this Karabits recording of the Fifth not long after reviewing Andrew Litton’s very fine recording for BIS. As has been the case with previous issues in this series the notes take the form of a brief conversation with Karabits. Contrasting Prokofiev’s Fifth, written during the Second World War, with the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich, Karabits points out that “Prokofiev writes about the positive, about the happiness that may exist even at such terrible times.” I hadn’t read Karabits’ comments prior to listening for the first time to his reading of the symphony but what struck me at an initial hearing, is that he does bring out the lyrical side of the music rather well.

That’s very true of the first movement, the start of which is quite gentle in his hands. The singing quality of much of Prokofiev’s writing is apparent, as is the lofty aspiration of some passages. That’s not to say that Karabits softens the gritty passages and he brings power to the climaxes, not least the last, extended climax (11:25 – 12:55). By contrast, Litton’s approach is somewhat weightier; his reading sounds darker at the start and I hear more tension in his performance overall – that’s not an implicit criticism of Karabits’ approach. I certainly find greater rhetorical power in Litton’s climaxes and that’s of a piece with his more epic way with this movement.

Karabits makes the scampering scherzo very mobile – as does Litton - and gets some well-pointed playing from his orchestra. The long-limbed “trio” (3:17 – 5:06) bowls along nicely. Karabits is a very persuasive guide to the Adagio though those who want a weighty approach may find even more satisfaction with Litton. I have the sense that Litton’s Bergen violins have just a bit more tonal body than their Bournemouth rivals in the cruelly high-lying passages. It’s no surprise that Litton’s performance sounds more menacing at the movement’s main climax (7:28 in his reading), though Karabits is impressive too in the same passages (from 6:22 in his performance). Incidentally, those respective timings will indicate that Litton is a bit more expansive – as he is in the first movement – though the differences in tempo are not too significant overall. By contrast, though, Karabits is fractionally steadier in his core tempo for the Allegro giocoso finale. However, the difference with Litton is not all that marked and I think that both conductors are successful at imparting the essentially bright and breezy nature of this movement.

I was extremely impressed with the recorded sound for Litton and I think that, on balance the BIS engineers achieve a bit more body and depth. But producer Andrew Walton and engineer Mike Clements have given Karabits a very good recording too.

Prokofiev wrote his Fourth Symphony in 1930 for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to fulfil the commission he raided his 1928 ballet The Prodigal Son. The 1947 revision of the score was quite significant: not only did Prokofiev enrich the orchestration but also he expanded the score itself quite substantially. Some idea of the degree of expansion can be gleaned from the fact that Marin Alsop takes 40:18 for her performance of the 1947 score (review) compared with the 23:17 that it takes Karabits to play the original score.

Karabits refers in the booklet to the “simple and classical structure” of this score. I think that’s a pretty fair summary; the original score is certainly more succinct than the 1947 version. I have to say, though, that I’m not sure how easy it is to discern symphonic development or argument when listening. The first movement in particular seems rather episodic. However, the symphony is a most attractive score. The lyrical writing in the second movement is most appealing, not least the beguiling flute solo at the start – here beautifully played. In addition the delicate textures that characterise much of the third movement are most interesting and are here very well delivered. The music in the fourth movement has, perhaps, the strongest profile and Karabits gets excellent rhythmic articulation from the orchestra. It’s good to have this excellent performance available.

Karabits offers a generous “filler” in the shape of the early Dreams. As befits its title, much of the work is subdued and atmospheric in tone. I wouldn’t describe it as a neglected masterpiece but it’s an attractive score that is well worth hearing.

This latest release in Karabits’ cycle does rather demonstrate the limitations of the documentation. As with previous releases the notes consist of a conversation in which the conductor comments on each work in turn. That’s all well and good and I appreciate reading his thoughts. However, his comments are short and not very detailed and I don’t think a newcomer to any of this music will find them all that helpful. Andrew Huth’s notes accompanying Litton’s Fifth Symphony provide valuable background while Keith Anderson’s notes for the Alsop recording of the Fourth Symphony provide essential information about how the score was fashioned from the ballet. An ideal solution for Onyx would have been to have Karabits’ comments as an adjunct to a more conventional booklet note.

I enjoyed these performances very much and, as I indicated earlier, they are presented in good sound. The final instalment in this Karabits cycle is eagerly awaited. Incidentally, he and the Bournemouth Symphony will be playing the Fifth Symphony as part of a most attractive programme at the BBC Proms on 10 August 2015.

John Quinn

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