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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 17-19, 21 September 2014
RCO LIVE RCO16002 SACD [43:06]

This performance was given during Mariss Jansons’ final season as Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It has already appeared in a very substantial boxed set of Jansons/RCO performances which was reviewed by Michael Cookson not long ago. It’s good news that the performance has now been issued independently though the fact that it appears without any coupling may cause one or two eyebrows to rise. Fortunately the calibre of what we hear is such that one can easily measure value for money in terms of quality rather than playing time.

I listened to this SACD in conventional stereo rather than in the surround option. Right at the outset I was impressed by the quality of the sound itself; as you listen to the opening wind phrases not only are the instruments sympathetically presented but also you feel that the engineers have successfully captured the ambience of the hall. The quality of the recordings continues to impress as more instruments join the discourse; all sections of the orchestra are excellently presented.

Jansons leads a magnificent account of the first movement. The sweeping lyrical passages come over wonderfully and are played with a fine sense of flow while the more powerful passages hit home. It’s clear that the conductor has a very fine sense of the movement as a single span. From 10:37 the ascent to the last climax is powerfully projected; hereabouts the brass are really formidable, as are the percussion.

The Allegro marcato has ample pace yet the speed is not so hectic that the musical points aren’t properly made; Jansons gets it just right. I like the tangy sounds of the RCO winds. There’s a brief passage (2:14-2:40) where you feel Prokofiev is almost sticking out his tongue mischievously; Jansons and his players deliver this with relish. The section which is, in effect, the Trio (from 3:25) is highly balletic in style. Jansons judges this passage perfectly and his players communicate it with style and flair.

The slow movement starts in a gentle, bittersweet vein but, my goodness, what a journey Prokofiev takes us on from this deceptive opening. The romantic, soaring string lines are often so reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. When the tempo picks up (at 3:05) Jansons is surprisingly brisk for a few pages but this was the only instance I can recall during the entire symphony where I was surprised by a tempo selection. The central climax (from 6:20) is big and imposing. This is a truly searching, eloquent reading of the movement. The finale contains extrovert, high-spirited music which Jansons and the RCO put across with relish. The playing is pointed and athletic.

There are many fine versions of this symphony in the catalogue already, notably Karajan’s 1968 recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker (DG). I also like Gergiev’s live LPO account from 2004 (Philips) and recently I was strongly impressed by Andrew Litton’s performance with the Bergen Philharmonic (review). This Jansons version is one of the finest I’ve encountered. His is a version that demonstrates the symphony’s stature. It’s a great shame that the playing time is so meagre but, for once, that’s a secondary issue: the quality of the performance, interpretation and recorded sound trump the issue of the playing time.

I referred earlier to the quality of the recorded sound by reference to the opening of the work. The engineers have done a very fine job in recording this performance. There’s an excellent dynamic range and the powerful climaxes make a great impression. This is a very truthful recording and it complements the quality of the playing in an admirable way.

This disc is a fitting reminder of Mariss Jansons’ time in Amsterdam.

John Quinn



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