Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 112 (revised version, 1947) [38:49]
Symphony No. 7 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131 (1951-52) [32:57]
Vivace from Symphony No. 7 with alternative ending [9:04]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. January 2014 (Symphony 4) and May 2015, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS-2134 SACD [81:58]
Only recently, when reviewing the last instalment of the Prokofiev symphony cycle by Kirill Karabits – a disc that included the Fourth Symphony in its revision as Op. 112 – I remarked on the coincidence that both he and Marin Alsop, his immediate predecessor in charge of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were both engaged in recording Prokofiev. If I’d thought more carefully I would have remembered that the coincidence is even greater since Andrew Litton preceded Marin Alsop at the helm of the Bournemouth orchestra and he too has been recording Prokofiev. In his case the recordings have been made with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, whose chief he was from 2003 until 2015. I’ve heard several of these Litton recordings – the Fifth Symphony, the Sixth Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet Suites – and I’ve been pretty impressed.
One thing that inclines me very favourably towards this new SACD from BIS is the quality of the recorded sound. The engineers have done a terrific job, presenting the performances in clear, sharply defined sound that has real depth to it. The sound on the Karabits recording of the Fourth Symphony, which is not untypical of his cycle as a whole, is rather more closely balanced and it has an edge – though not an unpleasant edge – that rather suits the music. However, the sound on the Onyx CD doesn’t have the richness or the firm, full bass that the BIS engineers achieve. The BIS disc also gives a good feel for the acoustic of the Bergen hall. If you listen, for example, to the track on which the finale of the Seventh Symphony is offered with the alternative ending you’ll hear the decay on last chord most realistically caught.
Litton offers the Fourth Symphony in the substantially revised 1947 version. Unusually, Prokofiev did not withdraw the earlier Op. 47 version (1930) so both scores remain in his catalogue of works. The 1947 revision was pretty comprehensive; not only did Prokofiev expand the score significantly he also increased the orchestral forces. The 1930 score is very interesting but I prefer the 1947 version. In his valuable notes Andrew Huth makes the very interesting point that by 1947 Prokofiev was now long back in the USSR after his sojourn in the West, during which time he had composed both Op. 47 and the ballet that spawned it, The Prodigal Son. He appreciated that he was now writing for a very different type of audience and designed Op. 112 as “a real Soviet symphony”.
Litton makes a very good job of the Fourth Symphony. In the first movement, once he reaches the Allegro eroico, he invests the music with great energy and purpose – the playing of the Bergen Phil is razor-sharp. As the notes point out, Op. 112 isn’t as tightly structured as, say, the Fifth or Sixth symphonies and there are plenty of lyrical digressions, which Litton puts over very well. I fancy that when Prokofiev eases off in these passages Litton is a bit more expansive in his approach than Karabits but I’m content with either of these conductors’ way with the music. The second movement is marked Andante tranquillo and Litton takes due note of the tranquillo direction. This is a fine, affectionate reading which Litton shapes very sympathetically. The short third movement is pithily inflected. The recorded sound has been impressive throughout but in the finale I really sat up and took notice. There’s splendid definition of the various strands of the orchestra in the opening pages – for which both Litton and the engineers must take a bow. He gets excellent articulation from his players here and for the rest of the movement. The percussion is vividly recorded – the bass drum really makes an impact. This is a super account of the movement, setting the seal on a fine performance of the symphony as a whole.
The Seventh Symphony might also be said to exist in two versions because after the premiere Prokofiev provided an alternative, cheerful ending though he was very ambivalent about the revision. In my experience most conductors play the original ending and I have a strong preference for that conclusion. Andrew Litton offers a choice by tacking on a second performance of the finale in which he observes the revised version – the added bars begin at 8:44. This seems to be a sensible way of presenting the alternatives and far more helpful than the tactic adopted by Karabits and Onyx. There the revised ending is tacked on as a separate track lasting just 0:29, which seems to me to be neither use nor ornament (review).
Litton begins the symphony in quite a weighty fashion – though the weight is not overdone. The big, inviting lyrical theme (2:03) is given a most expressive treatment – it’s a super tune so why not enjoy it? Possibly some listeners may feel that Litton is a bit too expansive in this movement given that Prokofiev sought to write simple, direct music. I don’t think he is too expansive but others may prefer the slightly tauter approach of Karabits. The second movement brings us one last example of a Prokofiev waltz. Litton and his players bring a fine sweep and excellent rhythmic propulsion to the music.
In the booklet Andrew Huth makes an interesting point about the slow movement, arguing that “the melodic lines have something constricted and anxious about them, as though Prokofiev were suppressing their tendency to reach full lyrical growth.” I must say this had not occurred to me before but, on reflection, I think it’s a valid point. However, Litton doesn’t make the music seem unduly constricted. The vivacious finale opens with a real zip – I love the harp glissandi, which are ideally balanced – and the swift music continues in that vein. At 5:20 the lyrical theme from the first movement is revisited and Litton makes it a true moment of arrival and then plays the melody for all its worth. He brings off the original ending very well indeed.
Both of these symphonies fare very well in Andrew Litton’s hands and his conception of the scores is backed up by terrific playing by the Bergen Philharmonic. The recorded sound is very fine indeed. I don’t know if Litton intends to give us a full cycle of the symphonies – I do hope so – but anyone who has been following this series can invest in this latest instalment with confidence.