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

Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 6, Op. 111 (1945/47) [37.58]
Symphonic fragment (1902) [3.15]
Symphony No. 4, Op. 112 (1929/30, rev. 1947) [35.55]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 11-13 May 2015, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England
ONYX 4153 [77:49]

By a quirk of fate Marin Alsop, who served as Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (2002-2008) has been making a cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies in São Paulo at the same time that her successor in Bournemouth, Kirill Karabits, has been recording the same music in Bournemouth. Karabits has just reached the end of his journey through the symphonies – this Onyx disc is the last instalment – and unless I’m mistaken the Alsop recording of the Sixth is her penultimate release with only the Seventh to come. I’ve followed both cycles with interest. I’ve heard all the Karabits discs and most of the Marin Alsop recordings though her account of the Third Symphony seems to have passed me by.

Recently both of these discs were considered in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and since then I’ve had the chance to listen to both releases in more detail.

Richard Whitehouse says in his notes for the Naxos disc that the Sixth was a ‘decidedly equivocal’ response to what the Soviets referred to as The Great Patriotic War and its consequences. The sinuous first theme is very relaxed in the Alsop performance – too relaxed? The subdued episode that follows the oboe-led second theme (2:50) is well done and when the development section is reached (5:26) I liked the ominous, suppressed way in which the section starts. Later the energy and power increase successfully and the dissonant, percussive climax comes off well. At this point I was beginning to think that in the Listening Studio we’d perhaps been a little harsh in our assessment of this reading. However, when I turned to Karabits there was a noticeable difference. His pacing of the music is not dissimilar to Alsop’s – perhaps a fraction steadier – but I hear more tension in the opening theme and in the subsidiary material. The second theme is presented with more sadness (3:08) and when Karabits reaches the development he and his orchestra invest the music with more weight and convey a sense of foreboding. The climax (from 9:19) has greater force and drama. Listening to the two performances side by side – and especially when playing each conductor’s accounts of individual movements one after the other – it seemed to me that Karabits feels the music from inside whereas I’m not convinced that’s the case with Marin Alsop. It may be that the rather more closely balanced Onyx recording enhances the power of the Karabits reading but I think that’s far from being the only reason for the difference between the two experiences.

The second movement opens strongly in Marin Alsop’s hands and the lyrically melancholic second idea is beautifully played (3:15) After the ominous ‘tick-tock’ passage there’s considerable delicacy in the way she and her orchestra deliver many of the following pages – though Karabits is not put in the shade here. I find Karabits delivers the movement’s main climax more strongly. Karabits makes the very opening of this movement sound more baleful than his American rival does and what follows is more dramatic and heartfelt, I think, than is the case with Ms Alsop. The second theme (3:08) is a touch more eloquent in his performance.

On to the finale and Marin Alsop leads a performance that is full of vitality. I think she does the opening minutes of this movement really well with the subsidiary detail underneath the scampering main theme registering well. Karabits is equally successful here and the accompanying figures are well delivered, especially by his tart-sounding brass. Gradually, dark undertones can be discerned in the music and before long these undertones become more obvious; here is an excellent example of the equivocation identified by Richard Whitehouse. Eventually there’s a very definite change of mood as material from the first movement is reprised; 8:34 in the Naxos performance. Alsop does this passage well but I hear more of a sense of fragility in the Karabits reading. The final climax is more wrenching in Karabits’ hands and he drives the dissonant conclusion suitably hard.

As will be clear, I have a pretty strong preference for the Karabits performance though I can imagine that some collectors may prefer the more relaxed, lyrical view that Marin Alsop takes and I admired quite a lot of what she does in her performance. Both conductors are splendidly served by their respective orchestras. I like the recorded sound that Naxos provide but the rather closer sound on the Onyx disc is arguably better suited to Prokofiev’s music. On one point Naxos scores emphatically over the Onyx issue. All that Onyx give us by way of notes is a few short snippets of conversation with the conductor. For Naxos Richard Whitehouse contributes excellent notes – particularly valuable for newcomers to the music – in which he sets out the background and then describes the music. Karabits’ comments would have been interesting if presented in tandem with a set of notes comparable to what is provided on Naxos but in isolation they’re woefully inadequate.

Marin Alsop’s filler is an interesting if hardly earth-shattering one. The Waltz Suite was compiled by Prokofiev by bringing together six waltzes from various works. There are two from the opera War and Peace, three from the ballet Cinderella and one from his aborted score of music for the film Lermontov. Six waltzes heard in succession might seem too much of a good thing but the suite works because the individual waltzes are so different from each other – and all are interesting and enjoyable in their own right. Also the pieces are really well played by the São Paulo Symphony. I relished the suave string playing in the first waltz, which is one of the brace from War and Peace. The third waltz, entitled ‘Mephisto Waltz’ is the Lermontov excerpt. Here the scoring is imaginative and characteristic; the more subdued middle section includes a deliciously-played violin solo. The slow, wistfully sad fourth waltz is from Cinderella; here the Brazilian strings offer lovely, delicate playing. The last waltz is also from Cinderella. It’s the most familiar music in the suite and this ebullient waltz provides a sparkling, extrovert conclusion. I really enjoyed this performance of the suite.

Karabits offers more substantial fare for his filler although I’m not referring to the Symphonic fragment when I say that. This is the opening of a G major symphony that Prokofiev essayed at the age of just eleven. As Karabits himself says it’s not a great piece. In fact, though it shows precocious confidence it is otherwise inconsequential and I can’t imagine I’ll ever listen to it again.

The rest of the disc is devoted to the Fourth Symphony in its revised version, completed in 1947. Karabits has already set down the original 1930 version (review). I’m glad that he’s now gone on to record the revised version as well. In passing I wonder if Marin Alsop will also record the original version of the Fourth. Perhaps she won’t because her recording of the revised score was coupled, very imaginatively, with the music for the 1929 ballet L’enfant prodigue which Prokofiev then mined one year later for his Fourth Symphony (review).

The composer’s revision of the Fourth Symphony was significant. Not only did he add a number of instruments to the scoring but also he added quite a lot of music, especially to the first movement which plays for 11:59 in Karabits’ account of the 1947 score against a ‘mere’ 6:11 in his performance of the 1930 version. In all he takes 35:55 to play the later iteration of the symphony as compared with 23:17 for the 1930 score. I think it’s valuable that he’s included both versions of the symphony in his cycle as it enables us to experience from the same conductor not just Prokofiev’s first symphonic thoughts on this material but also to hear that material refracted, as it were, through the prism of several more years of experience.

The new performance is a very good one. Looking at my notes I see that I’ve written the word ‘incisive’ several times in respect of the first, third and fourth movements. Karabits drives the main Allegro eroico of the first movement strongly but when Prokofiev eases back on the throttle the more relaxed episodes are played gracefully. I particularly relished the way Prokofiev’s primary orchestral colours are realised. There’s a lovely flute solo at the start of the second movement and this typifies the sensitivity of the BSO’s playing in this movement. Here and elsewhere in the work it’s very evident that Karabits has schooled them well and that they’re well attuned to Prokofiev’s style. The mordant third movement is well done and then the finale is dexterous and tangy. The grandiose ending that Prokofiev grafted onto the symphony is not one of his more inspired changes to the original score but at least it enables Karabits to end his cycle in emphatic style.

I’ve been pretty impressed with the Karabits cycle and this final release is a strong conclusion. There’s one more release to go from Marin Alsop: I shall be interested to hear her take on the Seventh Symphony.

John Quinn

Previous review (Alsop): Brian Wilson
Previous reviews (Karabits): Michael Cookson and Dave Billinge



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