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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 112 (revised version) (1929-30/1947) [40:18]
L’enfant prodigue, Op. 46 (Ballet in Three Scenes) (1929) [37:55]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Sala, São Paulo, Brazil, 27-30 November and 2-3 December 2012 (Symphony), 4-7 July and 9 July 2012 (Ballet) DDD
NAXOS 8.573186 [78:13]

This is the third volume in Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev symphony cycle – though it was actually the second to be issued, I think. I was impressed by the recording of the Fifth Symphony, which began the series (review) though when I heard it subsequently in BD-A format I wasn’t convinced that the improvement in sound quality was sufficient to justify the extra outlay (review). I had no such reservations about the BD-A pairing of the first two symphonies, however; artistically I rated it another success while the sound itself is superb in BD-A format (review). Now I’m reverting to conventional CD format for the Fourth Symphony.

There are two versions of the Fourth Symphony. Prokofiev originally wrote it in 1929, drawing on music that he’d written for the ballet L’enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son). That version of the symphony, commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which fell in 1930, and premièred by the orchestra and Koussevitzky, was published as Op 47. In 1947 Prokofiev revised the score substantially, expanding the orchestration and lengthening the score considerably; it’s this later version, Op 112. that Marin Alsop has chosen to record.

She’s coupled the symphony recording with an account of the ballet score on which it was based and this, I think, was an inspired decision. The ballet is in three scenes and here Naxos very helpfully split the recording up into ten different tracks. Apart from making the action easier to follow this tracking has the merit that if you so wish when you’ve listened to a movement of the symphony you can skip, as I did once, to the relevant track in the ballet to hear the music in its original context. Keith Anderson’s notes are good and are particularly useful in outlining on which section of the ballet each symphonic movement was based. Incidentally, I see that the recording sessions for the ballet took place before those for the symphony. I wonder if there was any significance in that and, indeed, whether it’s preferable for the listener to approach the ballet or the symphony first.

The symphony has four movements. The first has a fairly substantial introduction after which the main body of the movement has the unusual marking Allegro eroico. This fast music is based on material from the ‘Meeting friends’ section of the ballet (track 6); it’s played in a lively fashion by the Brazilian orchestra who also do the lyrical sections very nicely. Marin Alsop drives the quick passages along urgently and she ensures that the climaxes are delivered powerfully. There follows a slow movement which is based on the concluding part of the ballet where the Prodigal Son returns home (track 14). This is in Prokofiev’s very typical lyrical vein with some long, soaring lines in the strings. It’s very well played here.

The shortest movement is the third for which Prokofiev drew on material he’d composed to illustrate The Seductress in the ballet (track 7). This music portrays the lady in question as worldly-wise. It’s piquant stiff though I don’t readily discern much evidence of symphonic development. The present performance is strongly characterised. The finale uses material from the first scene of the ballet though there’s a jaunty, almost tipsy march episode (track 4 from 3:33) which I don’t recognise as being from L’enfant prodigue – though that may be due to a lack of awareness on my part. This march features some tangy work by the woodwinds and subsequently oily trumpets are to the fore. The Allegro risoluto with which the movement began is then reprised and it’s sharply delivered by Alsop and her team. The conclusion of the movement revisits material from the introduction to the first movement. Marin Alsop makes out a strong case for this work and I enjoyed the experience of listening to it. That said, though it’s an interesting score I don’t think it’s quite top-drawer Prokofiev and the score doesn’t scale the heights of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies.

L’enfant prodigue is the fourth and last ballet that Prokofiev penned for Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. The scenario depicts the Prodigal Son taking his share of his inheritance and heading off into the world to seek – or, rather, to squander – his fortune. Early on in his travels he runs into some of his friends (track 6). To judge by the music they seem to have been a pretty bawdy bunch. There’s some acute, colourful playing hereabouts and I admired the precision of the São Paulo orchestra both here and later on in the ‘Drunkenness’ portion of the score (track 10). The musicians relish the music that depicts the temptress (track 7) and in the following section, ‘The Dancers’, there’s some heavily accented, angular music which the orchestra projects strongly (track 8). There’s some unusual and very effective writing for a trio of clarinets, one of them a bass clarinet, at the start of ‘The despoiling’ (track 11) and the São Paulo clarinet section really justifies having the spotlight shone on them. The extended last section, ‘The return’ (track 14) is closely linked to the slow movement of the symphony. Prokofiev here illustrates the compassion and clemency of the Son’s father in a fitting manner as the ballet achieves a tranquil, reassuring end.

My verdict on L’enfant prodigue is similar to my view of the Fourth Symphony. It’s an interesting score and because it’s illustrative music for the theatre there’s a strong case for saying that, as a composition, it works rather better than does its symphonic transformation – or alter ego. Yet, as a ballet composer, Prokofiev was to achieve so much more in the future with Cinderella and, above all, with Romeo and Juliet. Nonetheless, it’s an important score in terms of Prokofiev’s development and it’s very good to have it here in such a telling performance.

With very good sound and useful notes this is another welcome instalment in the Alsop Prokofiev cycle. I’m eager to hear her in the last two symphonies.

John Quinn

Previous review: Leslie Wright