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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.4 in C Op.47 (1930)[23:17]
Symphony No.5 in B flat major Op.100 [43:59]
Dreams Op.6 [9.50]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2014/15, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England
ONYX 4147 [77.28]

The Fourth Symphony, derived from Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son, is, unusually, given in its early and very short, 1930, version. It comes over as a tuneful and strongly balletic piece with few dark undertones. In some ways, as Karabits himself remarks in the notes, it has similarities with the final, Seventh Symphony, in that it is comparatively simple and classical. In the later version of 1947, Op. 112 - due to be released on the final volume of this series coupled with No.6 - the composer strengthens and greatly lengthens the material such that he felt the later version was almost a new symphony. Here the episodes of the original ballet are given without huge stylistic change, though obviously with much sophisticated development. It is an attractive work and quite a surprise after the violence of parts of the Third Symphony.

The famous recording of the Fifth Symphony is that of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (review ~ review). That recording featured an ear-splittingly loud tam-tam stroke at the end of the first movement as well as the usual characteristics of the BPO/Karajan team: beautiful string playing and the grandest of brass ensembles. The symphony always seemed weighted towards the first movement as a result. Karabits emphatically does not make this emphasis. His view is much tougher and more angular with that gong recessed amongst other percussion as it is in a live performance. His rhythms are tight and at times almost balletic. No part of the orchestra is allowed to dominate and as a result a stronger and more even symphony emerges without giving away one iota of excitement. Make no mistake this performance is up there with the best. There is detail and dynamic range in spades, the tempi are more extreme, the opening is slow and slightly pensive and the fast passages make more impact as a result. The very end is grander than Karajan, giving the symphony a somehow more significant close whilst losing none of the music's bounce. Over and over again Karabits paints in telling details that add to the subtlety of his performance. This is Prokofiev with sharp edges, as it should be. Maybe there is something in the old saw that a Ukrainian conductor knows best about a Ukrainian-born composer.

The rarely performed Dreams is given a suitably highly-charged reading making it sound unexpectedly more interesting than the composer himself thought. He is quoted as describing this early symbolist piece, derived from the school of Scriabin, as 'false'. "One of the conductors of the Dreams said to me, 'I hope you didn't mind the false notes.' My dear fellow,' I replied, 'there wasn't a note in the whole thing that wasn't false. I didn't recognise it as my own at all." (quoted by Gutman, Prokofiev 1988). Well done to Karabits for giving it a convincing airing despite this.

I was most concerned about the sound balance of Volume 1 in this series, I am pleased to say no such problems exist this time nor were there issues in Volume 2 which I did not review. Indeed The Lighthouse sounds like a great acoustic for recording for much the same reason as the Southampton Guildhall was in times past for this orchestra: there is vital space around the orchestra giving a welcome bloom to the sound. As one attending concerts regularly in this venue I have to note it doesn't sound like this with the seats occupied by an audience. However the recording is a good representation of sound heard in recording sessions with the seats retracted and the orchestra placed more centrally away from the platform. As a sort of addendum I should note that, having also bought the Litton/Bergen Prokofiev 5 on BIS SACD, that recording, of a different, excellent but more traditional performance, the BIS recording is noticeably superior in surround and high-resolution. I do wonder why companies such as Onyx continue to use the obsolete 16bit/44.1 kHz CD for such important issues as the BSO Prokofiev cycle. I am quite certain the master recording for Onyx by Mike Clements is in high resolution. A mystery.

Dave Billinge

Previous reviews: John Quinn and Michael Cookson


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