In twentieth-century symphonic music Sergei Prokofiev certainly doesn’t receive the attention he deserves. According to my copy of the John Hunt discography, Herbert von Karajan, so prolific in the recording studio, only recorded the Classical
and the Fifth Symphony
. Simon Rattle
fared no better having recorded the Fifth Symphony
and that was with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra over twenty years ago in 1992. My eyes were opened to Prokofiev’s symphonies in 2010 at the Philharmonie, Berlin when reporting on a stunning performance of the Symphony No. 3
by the touring London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski.
I have never found the available recordings of Prokofiev’s set of seven symphonies completely satisfactory and there is always welcome room for a new survey. With these two volumes the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) under principal conductor the Ukrainian Kirill Karabits commence its traversal of the symphonies. There's also the welcome inclusion of a number of the composer’s lesser known works.
Prokofiev experienced severe problems in getting his opera The Fiery Angel
(1922/27) staged. It was not until 1955 that it was performed completed. Salvaging what he could Prokofiev in 1928 extensively reused material from the opera for his Symphony No. 3
, a dramatic five movement score where the influence of Stravinsky is clearly discernible. It was Pierre Monteux who introduced it in 1929 in Paris. In part the writing is deficient in overall coherence but the dedicated Karabits never shirks the considerable demands of the score. His is a compelling if sometimes uneven performance. Especially enjoyable is the opening of the first movement Moderato evocative. This is a nocturnal winter scene sending an icy chill down the spine before advancing powerfully like an unstoppable war machine. In the closing movement Andante mosso - Allegro moderato Karabits impressively generates weighty, pounding music of anxiety and torment.
A triumph at its 1952 première in Moscow the Symphony No. 7
was actually written for the Children’s Radio Division who wanted a simple work suitable for young listeners. Under the even-tempered surface Prokofiev ensures a dark and serious undertow. Maybe this reflects Prokofiev’s melancholic mental state as a few years earlier his wife Lena had been arrested on a trumped up charge of spying and treason and sentenced to twenty years in a Siberian labour camp. The Moscow première was the last time Prokofiev heard a performance of his works — he died a few months later. In resolute form Karabits and his Bournemouth players provide a sparkling performance capturing that special Russian coloration. The opening Moderato feels like a swirling fantasy world of predominantly yearning passion. This is underpinned by darkly mysterious low strings. Serving as a stark contrast comes the Allegretto - Allegro with its good humour, bordering on the witty. This is an engaging interpretation that feels like a depiction of the colourful sights and boisterous sounds of a circus visiting town. An interesting addition is a separate track giving us Prokofiev’s alternative revised upbeat ending.
By today’s standards at just over sixty-five minutes the timing for this release is fairly short measure. There are several shorter orchestral works that would have been eminently suitable as fillers such as the American Overture
, Op. 42b; The Year 1941
, Op. 90 or Thirty Years
, Op. 113.
Composed in 1924 whilst Prokofiev was living in Paris the two movement Symphony No. 2
was his progressivist response to a Parisian audience. Prokofiev designed this work to be “made of iron and steel”. Karabits gives an engagingly cogent reading that robustly drives home the climaxes. The opening movement is all raw power and rhythmic propulsion. It is redolent of an iron foundry. The contrasts of the second movement, a theme and six variations, are splendidly produced. The crushingly relentless, forward impetus of the fifth variation Allegro con brio is memorable and looks forward to the irrepressible war machine that is Symphony No. 3
. Finally the impressive sixth and final variation Allegro moderato with its pounding raw energy and grinding momentum (4.05) completely alters in mood - gradually unwinding and loosening the tension.
A real find is the Sinfonietta in A major
. It's a work that I can’t remember ever seeing programmed. Composed in 1909 whilst still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory it bears a dedication to Prokofiev’s conducting professor Nikolai Tcherepnin. Prokofiev was motivated to write his Sinfonietta
after hearing a rehearsal of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy
contrasted with a run-through of the Rimsky-Korsakov Sinfonietta on Russian Themes
, Op. 31. Subsequently Prokofiev twice revised the five movement score in 1914 and also in 1929 when it was published as Op. 5/48. This final revision was premièred in 1930 under baton of Konstantin Saradzhev. It is hard to fault Karabits and the BSO in this rewarding A major score. Exuberantly performed Prokofiev’s joyous and capricious writing abounds in positive energy and never feels overdone or trivial.
The Symphony No. 1
was written in 1917 using a neo-classical style in the manner of Haydn and Mozart. Now universally known as the Classical
Symphony it received its première in 1918 just a few months before Prokofiev emigrated to America. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Classical
is played more than all the other six symphonies put together. With Karabits and his Bournemouth players I don’t quite feel the same degree of vivacity and youthful zest as can be found in the most successful versions. An unexpected tentativeness to the opening movement fades away as the work progresses.
The final work is the Autumnal Sketch in E minor —
an orchestral miniature rarely encountered in the concert hall. Prokofiev wrote it in 1910 whilst a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Always looking for improvements he later revised it undertaking some re-orchestration both in 1915 and again in 1934. Karabits says that Prokofiev was inspired by Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead
and Symphony No. 2
also in E minor.
None of the available sets of the complete Prokofiev symphonies have been entirely convincing. The best known are: London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev; Berliner Philharmoniker/Ozawa; Orchestra National de Paris/Rostropovich; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Kitajenko
; London Symphony Orchestra/Weller and Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
. A set I particularly admire was recently re-issued on Melodiya and played by Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky
. Recorded in 1965/67 in Moscow I found notable the striking impact and consistency of this Melodiya set.
Both Karabits volumes were recorded in 2013/14 at The Lighthouse, Poole with the wide dynamic range requiring considerable volume adjustment. Although not compromising the experience too much the balance is not as ideal as I would have wished. There are interesting and reasonably informative booklet notes with short introductions by conductor Karabits and an interview involving Prokofiev biographer Daniel Jaffé.
On Onyx Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are certainly highly committed and seem generally well prepared. No single conductor seems to have found the key to Prokofiev’s symphonies in their entirety but Karabits’ attempts are creditable and the listener will find in them much to engage.
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