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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op 100 (1944) [44.24]
Scythian Suite from Ala and Lolly, Op. 20 (1916) [22.59]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Tugan Sokhiev
rec. live, 5-6 October 2013 (Suite); 19, 21 April 2014 (Sym), Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 185152 [67.47]

For Sony Classical with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (DSO Berlin) Tugan Sokhiev has already released a recording of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible. For this new all-Prokofiev disc the intrepid Symphony No. 5 is coupled with the biting rhythms of the Scythian Suite. These are exciting works that Prokofiev wrote in Russia, although nearly thirty years apart.

Sokhiev recorded these works in 2013 and 2014 at live concerts at the Philharmonie, Berlin. Since then he has decided to step down. He conducts his last DSO concerts with the Berlioz La damnation de Faust in June 2016; returning as a guest conductor during the 2016/17 season. Robin Ticciati is to replace Sokhiev in the 2017/18 season. The change has come about as Sokhiev, now music director and principal conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, has had to reduce his workload. At the Berlin Musikfest 2014 I reported a stunning DSO Berlin performance of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 by Sokhiev. That Philharmonie concert will live long in the memory.

Prokofiev composed his Symphony No. 5 after the D-Day landings. The war was still raging and Russian troops were advancing towards Berlin. In January 1945 the première was given by the State Symphonic Orchestra of the USSR under the composer’s baton in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The success of the symphony re-established Prokofiev’s standing on the international stage. It also served to reaffirm his reputation with the Soviet authorities. Koussevitzky in November 1945 conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the American première. Shortly after the Boston concert Prokofiev’s image was featured on the front cover of Time Magazine. The work was held up as a magnificent example of a heroic Soviet symphony and many renowned conductors took it up.

Marked Andante, the craggily valiant first movement is dark and bitingly resolute, often threatening and ominous. Under Sokhiev it suggests a massive war-machine advancing relentlessly and menacingly forwards. A build-up of tremendous orchestral power ends the movement. The determined Scherzo has an unremitting momentum and repeats some thirty times a brief, catchy theme. The upbeat and joyous contrasting central section has relative warmth. The curious and lyrical Adagio here feels like a safe haven from an unyielding storm although there are also elements of unease and at times an almost aimless character. About three-quarters of the way through, a brutal climax precedes a section of relative calm. Positive feelings predominate in the Allegro giocoso with bursts of jollity and ebullience confronting episodes of calm. Towards the conclusion all that impulsive vitality takes on a mock celebratory quality. Sokhiev ensures an abrupt, near-explosive end. His powerfully direct approach is aided by remarkable playing. It's simply the finest account around.

Commissioned by Diaghilev, the ballet Ala and Lolly was written by Prokofiev, who had been inspired by hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It follows a scenario by Russian poet Sergey Gorodetsky. The work is based on folk-legends of the ancient Scythian peoples who settled in the Crimea. Diaghilev rejected the ballet even before it was completed. Prokofiev re-cast the music as a concert work and in this form it was premiered as the Scythian Suite in 1916 at the Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg.

In the opening section, Adoration to Veless and Ala, Sokhiev produces a tremendous surge of orchestral energy which from 2.33 gradually fades. Section II, a raucous and quite threatening Scherzo titled The Enemy of God and the Dance of the Spirits, represents the ruler of the underworld. Oriental sounds are discernible in section III, an Andantino depicting a nocturnal scene. Towards the conclusion at 4.09 it feels as if a comet is blazing across the heavens. The concluding scene IV Lolly’s departure and the Sun’s procession is a return to the sound-world of the opening section with the players producing an orchestral climax of sustained brutality. The outstanding recording certainly matches the elevated quality of the 2002 Mikkeli account from the Kirov Orchestra under Valery Gergiev (Philips).

Sony cope remarkably well, balancing the large orchestral forces and providing good audio clarity and presence. There are decent booklet notes too with a helpful essay by Habakuk Trauber.

This presents two of the most riveting orchestral performances I’ve heard for some time.

Michael Cookson



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