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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1924) [35.29]
Sinfonietta in A major, Op. 5/48 (1909, rev 1914, 1929) [21.28]
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 ‘Classical’ (1917) [14.43]
Autumnal Sketch, for orchestra (1910, rev. 1915, 1934) [7:32]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2014, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England
ONYX 4139 [79.29]

Last year I reviewed the first instalment of Kirill Karabits’ projected Prokofiev symphony cycle. That instalment contained the Third and Seventh symphonies and I found much to admire in the performances. Now Volume II is with us and I believe that the remaining two volumes will follow shortly.

An interesting feature of this Karabits series is that he’s including a number of early scores and so here we get a rare opportunity to hear the Sinfonietta and the Autumnal Sketch. As Karabits points out in the booklet, both of these scores were composed before Prokofiev finally left his home in Sontsovka in what is now Ukraine. As will be seen from the dates above, the composer subsequently revised both works and I presume that it’s in the revised versions that Karabits plays them. Both scores give an intriguing glimpse of the work of the young composer.

I’ve heard the Sinfonietta before but that was a very long time ago; indeed, so long ago that, to all intents and purposes I came to it here as to a new work. I had quite forgotten how engaging and attractive this five-movement piece is. It’s especially interesting to hear it in close proximity to the celebrated ‘Classical’ Symphony because both works have a certain similarity of outlook though the symphony is a more refined and sophisticated composition. Incidentally, I’m mildly surprised that the pieces haven’t been placed in chronological order on the CD and there’s much to be said for playing them in that order. Karabits and the BSO give a thoroughly engaging account of the youthful, unpretentious Sinfonietta and I enjoyed it greatly, especially the bright and breezy first movement and the lively, carefree Intermezzo, which benefits from some very spirited playing.

It’s suggested in the notes that the autumn that’s depicted in Autumnal Sketch is an interior autumn of the soul. That’s plausible, especially as Prokofiev wrote it within weeks of the death of his father. For the most part the music is gently melancholic in tone, though there’s a more powerful brief climax in the middle. The present performance is a good one.

I came to this CD shortly after experiencing the two symphonies in Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle on Naxos (review). It’s not really fair to compare the two sonically because I heard the Alsop performances as a BD-A whereas Karabits’ recordings are in conventional CD format. However, what I can say is that I don’t believe that Karabits is in any way inferior to Alsop when it comes to interpretation and putting the music across; and the Bournemouth Symphony can well stand comparison with their Brazilian counterparts when it comes to the quality of playing on the respective discs.

The Bournemouth performance of the ‘Classical’ Symphony is most enjoyable. The first movement is nicely articulated and spruce while the Larghetto is elegant and affectionately phrased. The scampering finale comes off very well. All in all this is a thoroughly likeable performance.

I’m not sure that “likeable” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the Second Symphony and especially its often iconoclastic first movement. I think that Karabits makes an important point when he suggests in the notes that Prokofiev may have wanted to make a ‘Statement’, given that his symphony was to be unveiled in the radical cultural atmosphere of mid-1920s Paris. The first movement must certainly have made the audience at the Parisian première sit up and take notice but, as Prokofiev later admitted, he made the music too complex. Much of the first movement is deliberately strident, dissonant and brittle. Yet there are clear melodic lines, even if they are somewhat angular, and it’s an achievement on the part of Karabits that despite the tumult the listener can discern the melodic basis. Furthermore, for all its stridency the movement does contain passages of relative relaxation and Karabits and his players are properly observant of these. I admired this performance.

The second movement takes the form of a theme and six variations. Onyx helpfully track each of these sections separately as Naxos did for Alsop. Much of the music in this movement is less full-on than the first movement. The first variation, for instance, is almost ghostly and the Bournemouth players deliver this with refinement. They’re good, too, in the fourth variation which is slow and delicate. Prokofiev achieves some magical scoring in this episode and his effects are very well realised here. Equally successful is the fast, driving music of the fifth variation where there’s very good articulation of the sharp rhythms. Overall, I think Karabits and his orchestra make a fine job of this movement. Indeed, the BSO plays the whole symphony with fine assurance, which is something of a feat given that this can’t be music with which they’d previously been familiar.

This is a very good follow-up to the first volume in Karabits’ Prokofiev survey. On my equipment the recording reproduced well. However, I note that Michael Cookson wasn’t entirely happy with the recording and prospective purchasers should compare his comments.

The first two discs in this series have been very rewarding and I shall be interested to follow the rest of this cycle.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson