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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
BIS BIS-2124 SACD [67:00]

Prokofiev’s symphonies are getting quite a lot of attention from the record companies just now. There are symphony cycles in progress from Marin Alsop in São Paolo and from Kirill Karabits in Bournemouth and it looks as if another cycle may be taking shape in Bergen under the leadership of Andrew Litton who is just about to step down as Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. He and the orchestra have already released a recording of the Sixth Symphony, which was warmly welcomed by Dave Billinge although Dan Morgan was rather less impressed when he reviewed the download version. However, I see that Dan was much more taken with the download of this new account of the Fifth Symphony.

I missed the Bergen recording of the Sixth Symphony and I now rather regret that because I can say unequivocally that this is one of the finest performances of the Fifth that I can recall hearing. In saying that I don’t overlook such distinguished accounts as those of Gergiev and Karajan - while the BIS sound is simply stunning. I played this SACD on my Blu-Ray player on which I’d previously auditioned Marin Alsop’s BD-A version of this symphony. I commented in that review that the Naxos BD-A sound for Alsop was “pretty good though not exceptional”. This BIS recording, though it may not be in BD-A format, offers a superior experience, at least on my equipment.

Litton made me sit up and take notice as soon as the symphony began because his basic tempo is quite steady. Andrew Huth’s note refers to the material in the first movement unfolding “in a spacious, unhurried manner” and that’s exactly what Litton achieves. Occasionally, when the music demands it, he speeds up but for the most part his reading of the first movement is patient and steady. For those, like me, weaned on the likes of Karajan and, even more so, Koussevitzky, this may come as a surprise initially but I soon found myself won over. Let’s not forget that this symphony was penned as the Soviet victory over Germany drew near and, despite the imminence of victory, the memories of wartime suffering would have been very raw. Prokofiev has serious matters to discuss in this symphony and I find that Litton invests the music with gravitas and heroism in a very convincing way. He’s helped to realise his conception by superb playing from the Bergen orchestra which is captured magnificently by the BIS engineers. Spacious and weighty the performance may be but it never sounds overweight nor does the music drag. Frankly, I can’t recollect hearing a more gripping account of this movement. By the time it was over I was hooked.

The fast ostinatos of the second movement have always seemed to me to have an air of menace and sinister malevolence. That comes out in Litton’s mobile and bitingly incisive reading and the brittle nature of Prokofiev’s scoring, brilliantly captured here, serves to accentuate the malevolent aspect, as does the razor-sharp playing. If this is a scherzo then the central, slower section (from 2:46) is the trio. Here the music, dominated by a smooth, echt-Prokofiev long melody, offers a strong contrast with what has preceded it and it’s sung out most persuasively by the Bergen strings. The passage (from 5:32) in which “quacking” brass gradually accelerate back to the ostinato material is expertly handled by Litton.

He and his orchestra continue to impress in a powerful, ardent account of the Adagio. All the lyricism comes out but there’s weight too. The Bergen players and the BIS engineers conspire to deliver some tremendous climaxes. The more subdued passages are put across with equal conviction as a highly detailed picture of Prokofiev’s music is presented. There’s vitality in abundance in the finale where, at last, the composer allows himself a predominantly positive tone. The orchestra plays this movement with great precision and élan, building up to a thrilling conclusion.

The “filler” is the Scythian Suite which Prokofiev salvaged from a ballet, Ala et Lolly, written for but rejected by Diaghilev. The Suite includes a good deal of dissonant music. The start of the first of its four movements, for example, is massive and gritty. This is delivered with great power by Litton and his players but when the music becomes quieter and more spectral they are just as skilful and just as convincing. There’s primitive menace aplenty in the pounding, evil opening of ‘The Enemy God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness’. Recorded sound such as BIS here provide really brings out the music’s dark power and then offers the listener an equally riveting experience when things become fast and furious. The Bergen orchestra excels in evoking the sensitive, atmospheric ambience at the start of ‘Night’ and then they turn on the power again in the stronger, more astringent pages of that movement and also in the concluding ‘Glorious Departure of Lolly and the Sun’s Procession’. Rarely have I been so gripped by the calculated primitivism of Prokofiev’s score.

All this excellent and idiomatic playing by Litton and his Bergen orchestra is enhanced by a recording of rare excellence from BIS. I’ve been impressed by many of their recordings in the past but few have bowled me over – or done such justice to the music and performances concerned – as these recordings. Engineer Jens Braun and producer Robert Suff have really set the bar high with their results here. The sound has depth, detail and richness. There’s an excellent left-to-right spread and the front-to-back perspective is also most impressive. The percussion is reported thrillingly; the brass make an exciting impact without ever sounding domineering. There’s a satisfyingly full foundation to the bass of the string choir and the violins soar impressively into the stratosphere every time Prokofiev take them there. Not to be outdone, the woodwinds register clearly and with the pungency that’s so often necessary in a Prokofiev score. Finally, the balance within the orchestra is exemplary, allowing us to hear a splendid amount of detail. I’m conscious that a great deal of the credit for all of this rests with Litton and the orchestra but the engineers have more than played their part.

This year the Bergen Philharmonic celebrates its 250th anniversary. These magnificent recordings, admittedly made a few months before the celebrations really kicked off, show the orchestra to be in splendid condition. I hope Andrew Litton will continue to record Prokofiev in Bergen. If he can match his achievements here he will make some major additions to the overall Prokofiev discography.

One final thought. While listening to this superb reading of the Fifth Symphony I was reminded repeatedly of the score’s kinship with Prokofiev’s ballet masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. It would be a wonderful way for the Bergen Philharmonic to mark their 250th anniversary if they could make a recording of the complete ballet with Andrew Litton. It’s been a while since we’ve had a new recording of that miraculous score and on this showing this could be the team to give us a marvellous account of it.

John Quinn

Another review ...

Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic continue their Prokofiev series with another big success. First there was a cello concerto album on Hyperion with Alban Gerhardt (“splendid performances” – John Quinn), before things moved over to BIS with Freddy Kempf’s reading of the Second and Third Piano Concertos (“set of performances about which making a big fuss would seem entirely appropriate” – Dominy Clements). Kempf will soon be completing the piano concerto cycle with Bergen and Litton. Meanwhile, the orchestra has moved on to the symphonies, starting with No. 6 (“No Prokofiev disc has better sound quality than this… performances of the highest quality” – Dave Billinge). By the time I’d had a chance to listen to my eClassical download of this new release, featuring the Fifth Symphony, my hardworking colleague Dan Morgan had already welcomed it with enthusiasm.

Anyway, there you have the history. Now you have my verdict on this new disc: it’s a winner. The Scythian Suite is as splashy, virtuosic, and exciting as recordings get, but the performance is not all fireworks. I like what Dan Morgan said about Litton’s reading: “he combines slam with subtlety.” Also, the BIS high-resolution sound is a major boost. With crystal clarity, we hear every section (practically every instrument) held in flawless balance. When the French horns launch their high trills in the third movement, or when the woodwinds and strings scurry in frantic unison in the finale, or when the bass drum rumbles: you hear it all. The amount of detail here adds an extra dimension to the excitement. Even the final minute isn’t just a loud wash of sound.

All those qualities – the glorious sound, the superb playing, the clarity with which everything is presented – apply to Symphony No. 5, too. I don’t think I’ve heard a performance where it’s easier to follow along with the flute or bassoon through the loudest episodes of the first movement.

Even if X-ray precision isn’t your thing, this is a very good account: warm but propulsive, lyrical but never draggy. The slow movement’s heightened speed (12:47) and melodrama work as an interpretive choice. There’s a lot of variation in this movement, across performances, from Bernstein’s 14:35 to Kuchar and Kletzki, who take just ten minutes. The symphony’s final minutes get the kind of roof-raising, neighbour-rousing thriller of a performance that will remind you why you have nice speakers. My only real complaint about pacing is the snarky, muted brass episode in the scherzo, before the reprise: could it maybe have been the slightest bit faster or perhaps just more rhythmically sharp? This section isn’t as scintillating as a great account like Bernstein’s or Kitajenko’s.

All in all, another victory for great BIS engineering and their mastery of orchestral balance, another testimony to the superb quality of the Bergen Philharmonic and another piece of evidence that Andrew Litton is one of the most underrated conductors alive. I enjoyed this very much and suspect you will too. Here’s to more recordings of the Prokofiev symphonies and piano concertos from these performers, coming soon.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Dan Morgan