Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.4 in C Op.112 (1947) [37:58]
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor Op.111 (1944-47) [35:55]
Symphonic fragment (1902) [3:15]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England, 11-13 May 2015
ONYX 4153 [77.49]

On a previous CD in this series, the Fourth Symphony, derived from Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son, was performed in its early and very short, 1930, version. In the later version of 1947, on the present disc, the composer strengthens and greatly lengthens the material so much that he felt this later version was almost a new symphony. Consider these facts: the ballet score is in one act lasting about 35 minutes. The 1930 version of No.4 lasts about 23 minutes and is substantially music from the ballet. The 1947 expansion, much more heavily orchestrated, lasts 36 minutes. The first movement is quite a lengthy development of two contrasting themes lasting nearly 12 minutes. The second movement pulses along amiably only gaining power in its climax. The third movement is much the most obviously balletic part of this version whilst the Finale, though still clearly based on dance music, undergoes quite extensive development leading to a grand and impressive coda. Maybe the problem with the Fourth is that, in numerical terms, it is sandwiched between the angry and aggressive Third and the noble and lyrical Fifth symphonies. Compared to either work this Fourth is emotionally much cooler. However there are many splendid passages and it is no surprise that the composer wished to revisit this material so many times.

On this CD the companion work is possibly the best thing Prokofiev ever wrote, the large scale and tragic Sixth; pace maestro Karabits, who does not agree it is tragic. The extensive and dramatic opening movement features acidic brass and lots of deep bass instruments making it an impressive listen. The mostly lyrical central movement is a fine mixture of glorious melody and martial brass and drums. The finale is a striking example of how to mislead the ear for it opens apparently light-heartedly with much bright and crisp writing for strings and woodwind: perhaps here the Moscow orchestra (for Rozhdestvensky on Melodiya) has the edge in insouciant playing but they are equalled by the BSO as the mood darkens. By the time the coda has crashed to its sudden end the listener will be suitably numbed at the turn of symphonic events.

The clean and spacious recording on this Onyx issue reflects well on Mike Clements' recording team. Those of us who attended the associated Prokofiev concerts at the Poole Lighthouse with auditorium seating in position and almost capacity audiences, were not blessed with this sound at all but we did hear performances of this magnificent quality. This is a cycle of which the BSO and Kirill Karabits should be very proud. No better set is available anywhere, even including the wonderful Moscow/Rozhdestvensky on Melodiya, the intensity and timings of which are very similar (MEL CD 1001797 (3 CDs)). A serious Prokofiev enthusiast should have both sets in their collection because, whilst the Russian performances are authentically brash and dynamic, this BSO set is equally well played but much better recorded and allows details through that remain hidden on Melodiya, notably the gong and the piano, but much else besides. The Chandos set with Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra is exciting but aggressive in sound and certainly in that respect outclassed by the new Onyx recording. In which respect I have to ask why, since the master recording is almost bound to be in high-resolution 24bit/96kHz, there is no such download available from this company?

I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about the notes as the performances but once again the amiable but essentially Classic FM style interview between Daniel Jaffé and Karabits is no substitute for a properly prepared note on each work, especially regarding the complicated background to the Fourth symphony. Even the header information above needed reference to alternative recordings to complete. Prokofiev's Sixth is his greatest symphonic achievement and deserves properly extensive consideration. The Fourth, as noted, has two versions and the attentive listener to this and the companion disc of the 1930 version rightly expects at least an account of the differences and an explanation of why the composer felt the need to redevelop the material of his ballet for a third time. The competently written but unimportant Symphonic fragment of 1902 gets more words than either mature work. Daniel Jaffé is a noted writer on Prokofiev and I am sure he could have done all this very easily. Despite these reservations about presentation, a very important issue which should be heard.

Dave Billinge
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Reviews of earlier volumes in this series
Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 7
Symphonies 4, 5