Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, op. 100 (1944) [44:43]
“Ala and Lolly” Scythian Suite, op 20 (1916) [22:58]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Tugan Sokhiev
rec. 19 & 21 April 2014 (Symphony), 5-6 October 2013 Philharmonie Berlin, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 185152 [67:47]

Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is both an orchestral showpiece and one of the great orchestral compositions to emerge from World War II. It lags only behind his First Symphony (the “Classical”) in popularity. It is easy to like, filled with stirring themes and sharp rhythms. This is an honest and attractive performance. If you heard Sokhiev lead this performance in concert, you would probably be thrilled. But it faces stiff competition as a recording. There are over a hundred versions available, and this interesting newcomer does not displace existing favorites.

Tughan Sokhiev is a young Ossetian conductor, like his older compatriot Valery Gergiev. Sokhiev is now at the Bolshoi, meaning that both of the greatest Russian opera houses feature performances led by Ossetians. But there is evidently no ‘Ossetian’ interpretation of Prokofiev, as the two conductors approach this symphony quite differently.

Prokofiev wrote his Fifth Symphony rather quickly in the summer of 1944, drawing upon sketches made over several years, including some gleanings from his 1935 ballet, Romeo & Juliet. The big news of the day was that the tide had turned in the war against Germany. The first performance took place in Moscow in the following January, as the Soviet Army chased the Germans toward Berlin. Is the symphony about the war? Perhaps. Insinuations of disquiet and triumph are there for anyone who wants to hear wartime struggle in this music. Prokofiev himself was considerably more casual in explaining his work, which he said was “about the spirit of man, his soul or something like that.” Perhaps he was tired of people asking “what does it really mean?” In any event, the work was good for a Stalin prize, and gave Prokofiev one great war symphony to Shostakovich’s two.

The symphony is in four movements. Sokhiev takes the opening Andante rather slowly. The pace is monumental, but not quite lumbering. Gergiev’s Fifth, with the London Symphony Orchestra, is fleeter, although with a less attractive sound. In the second movement, Allegro marcato, Sokhiev seems sluggish when he should be energetic. The opening waltz in the Adagio movement is stately, indeed, but when the climaxes arrive, they have real power. If a relaxed pace for this symphony appeals to you, Lorin Maazel leads the Cleveland Orchestra in a performance that is much more sharply defined, wittier, and better recorded.

The final movement, an Allegro giocoso, is the jewel of this disc. It has greater momentum, and the clearest, most rousing version of the coda that I know. This coda is a percussion-heavy bit of final tension in which the orchestra sounds like some kind of overpowering machine. However, Prokofiev imagined this explosive conclusion as a modernist version of Bacchic revelry, and thus machine-age gears and gadgets were far from his mind. Sokhiev and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin are a model of propulsion and precision in this movement, to which I will certainly return. If you are especially fond of this symphony, you might well purchase this recording for the final movement, and you may well appreciate the other three more than I. Otherwise, I would consider the more incisive approach of James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG).

Prokofiev’s 1916 Scythian Suite fills the remainder of this disc. Again, this is a perfectly respectable performance, but seems rather slack compared to the exciting playing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Claudio Abbado. Abbado’s tauter rhythms provide greater tension in a punchier recording.

Richard Kraus

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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