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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.6, Op.111 (1945-47) [38:57]
Waltz Suite, Op.110 (1946-47) [29:24]
So Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Sala So Paulo, Brazil, 15-18 and 20 April, 2015 and 24-25 and 27 April, 2015. DDD
NAXOS 8.573518 [68:21]

Reviewed as 24/96 download from eclassical.com (available as mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless, all with pdf booklet).

My introduction to Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony came via an RCA LP (SB6662) with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, still available as part of a box set of the symphonies, concertos, Lieutenant Kij, etc. (RCA 88697809452, 6 CDs, around 17.50.) Nos. 2 and 6 are also available from Testament. The dynagroove technique employed didn’t bring out the quality of the performance, so I was interested to hear how it sounded as streamed from Qobuz. Though greeted at the time with some reservations concerning the seriousness of the performance, it still makes a strong impression – strong enough to see why the Stalinist puppet Zhdanov condemned the symphony. Post-war symphonies were supposed to be full of joie de vivre and unstinting praise of the Motherland and Stalin; on that rating both Prokofiev and Shostakovich, with his Eighth Symphony, failed to satisfy.

As performed on the new Naxos recording, I’m not sure that Zhdanov would have banned it. It’s suitably pensive, but I don’t hear the sense of rising above anger in the first movement which Leinsdorf obtains. He gives the movement a little more time to breathe than Marin Alsop – only half a minute but that makes a difference. Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic is slower still and though the sound quality of his recording cannot match the RCA or Naxos, it’s not a serious impediment and his version remains a benchmark. (Regis RRC1396, with Heifetz in the Violin Concerto.)

Valery Gergiev in his complete traversal of the Prokofiev symphonies takes longer even than Mravinsky, a whole 90 seconds longer than Alsop. That’s despite a reputation for fast tempi, well deserved in other symphonies in the set. (Philips 4757655: Recording of the Month – review.) It sounds simplistic to suggest that the quality of the performances of this movement is in direct relation to the time taken – the slower the more the loss and anger are manifested – but that’s how it seems to work out.

The exception seems to be a later Gergiev recording, with the Mariinsky Orchestra on their own label. Here he adds more than a minute to the time on his Philips recording, making him almost three minutes longer than Alsop, but both suffer from the same problem of sounding pensive rather than fiery. Both recordings also need a volume boost, which may be part of the problem. The Mariinsky sounds especially muffled. (MAR0577, 2 CDs: Piano Concertos 4 and 5, Symphonies 4, 6 and 7.) It’s good value, especially in the download available from hyperion-records.co.uk, where 16-bit and 24-bit versions can be purchased for 13 and 14.65 respectively but the symphony just takes too long to come to life – review. I should point out that Dan Morgan, who tends to be more critical than myself, liked the symphony, though not the album as a whole – review – and one aficionado has bestowed 5 stars on Amazon.

I liked Alsop’s account of the second movement much more than the first – and much more than Gergiev’s Mariinsky version of this movement. Most performances hover around the 4-minute mark, and though Leinsdorf makes a strong case for 16:55, Gergiev at just two seconds longer, misses the mark. The playing is beautiful and affectionate but I don’t think that’s the key to this symphony. Even in the finale Gergiev has slowed down, from 11:03, which is in line with most performances, to 11:30. It’s not just a matter of timing: Leinsdorf (11:47) and Mravinsky (11:58) take even longer but without losing the vivacity. Only at the very end of the movement does Gergiev seem to me to come to life.

After a first movement which is a bit rushed and less than ideal overall, I liked Alsop and her team better in the second movement. Tempi here vary widely, from Mravinsky (13:26) to Leinsdorf (16:55), with Alsop in the middle at a sensible and suitably lively 14:14. The finale, too, is far better than the Mariinsky performance. Overall, however, Alsop and her team don’t match the best performances. Though the Naxos sound quality improves with a volume boost, it never achieves the quality of the Philips Gergiev set.

Leslie Wright’s response to the first CD in this series, containing the Fifth Symphony and the rarely performed The Year 1941, was very similar to my response to Alsop’s Sixth overall - ‘Alsop seems rather disengaged from the music’ - though he found the recording quality to his satisfaction. This seems to be a variable series in terms of response: others enjoyed the Fifth more than LW, and I liked the performances of Symphonies 1 and 2: though I’m still perplexed by No.2, Alsop makes a good case for it – Download News 2014/14.

If you are looking for the exact coupling of the Sixth Symphony and the Waltz Suite (Nos.1, 3 and 4), there’s Neeme Jrvi with the RSNO on Chandos (CHAN8359, download only – from theclassicalshop.net, mp3 and lossless – or with complete symphonies, CHAN10500, 4 CDs for around 17). That’s my recommendation for anyone looking for the complete set and the separate recording is also well worth considering. Neither conductor, however, really persuades me that the Waltz Suite – all music recycled from Prokofiev’s other works – is of more than passing interest, so I’m not too worried that Chandos give us only three movements. It does make for a short album, however (55:08), by comparison with the Naxos.

With several performances available that seem to me to get to the heart of this music better, I would look elsewhere. In view of the degree of disagreement about the earlier volumes, however, I recommend sampling for yourself, ideally not just the short extracts which most sellers provide. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library, classicsonline.com and Qobuz will be able to sample more fully there. It hadn’t yet appeared on Spotify when I checked. If you decide to download, post-Brexit UK readers will find the COL and Qobuz prices in GB more attractive than the eclassical.com, priced in $US.

Brian Wilson



 

 




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