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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Lieutenant Kijé suite, Op. 60 [21:29]
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 ‘Classical’ (1917) [14:53]
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1952, with revised ending) [33:27]
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Tugan Sokhiev
rec. 2014 (symphonies), 2016 (Kijé), Philharmonie, Berlin
SONY CLASSICAL 88985419432 [70:17]

On Sony Classical, Tugan Sokhiev and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin have already released recordings of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible (review) and the intrepid Symphony No. 5 with the Scythian Suite and its biting rhythms (review). Now the Russian-Ossetian conductor has turned his attention to Prokofiev’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 7 and the Lieutenant Kijé suite, recorded whilst he was in post as principal conductor and artistic director of the DSO Berlin. (Sokhiev is now music director at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.)

Opening the album is the Lieutenant Kijé suite, a Soviet government commission originally composed as a 1934 film score of the same name directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer. The film plot concerns the rise and fall of fictional protagonist Lieutenant Kijé during the reign of Tsar Paul I of Russia. Following the film’s release, Prokofiev arranged the soundtrack into an orchestral suite, which has become extremely popular primarily for the Christmas-themed Troika movement. Sokhiev directs a vibrantly fresh and exhilarating performance. Notable is the Romance based on a traditional folk song so dignified with its melodically memorable themes. Troika evokes a Russian three-horse sleigh ride with bells where one can almost feel the intensity of the winter chill on the cheeks.

Prokofiev wrote seven symphonies—they span the years 1916-1952—which, to my ears, inhabit a recognisably individual sound world. Prokofiev tended to write music as an emotional response to the challenges created by significant world events. It has been said that his symphonies mirror the turbulent history of the twentieth-century. Prokofiev wrote his Symphony No. 1 in 1917 adopting a neo-classical style in the manner of Haydn and Mozart. Now universally known as the “ClassicalSymphony, it received its première in 1918 just a few months before Prokofiev emigrated from Russia to America. A much-loved work, I should think it is played more than all the other six symphonies put together. Under Sokhiev, this is accomplished playing from the DSO-Berlin that feels vibrant with a buoyant zest in the outer movements. The robust Gavotta feels proud and stately. Outstanding is the playing of the Larghetto angular music, constructed with flowing lyricism which reminds me strongly of Tchaikovsky.
A triumph at its 1952 première in Moscow, the Symphony No. 7 was actually written for the Soviet Children’s Radio Division who wanted a simple work suitable for young listeners. Under the even-tempered surface veneer of the writing Prokofiev ensures a dark and serious undertow. Maybe this reflects Prokofiev’s melancholic mental state. A few years earlier his wife Lena had been arrested on a fabricated charge of spying and treason and sentenced to twenty years in a Siberian labour camp. The Moscow première of the symphony was the last time Prokofiev heard a performance of his works; he died a few months later. In a sparkling performance Sokhiev and his Berlin players capture that special Russian coloration infused in the writing. The opening movement Moderato underpinned by mysterious low strings feels like a swirling fantasy world mainly dark and ominous. Strikingly enjoyable is the contrasting directness of the Scherzo with its dance-infused writing in a waltz form that develops from relative gentility to uncompromising weight. In the undemanding Andante espressivo, Sokhiev emphasises a generous and idealised pastoral feel. Sokhiev’s compelling performance of the Finale feels like a depiction of the colourful sights and boisterous sounds of a circus visiting town, together with a grave undertow. Instead of Prokofiev’s original quiet ending, Sokhiev has chosen to use the alternative upbeat ending which is more potent, making I believe a more convincing impression. The Finale is a movement that I greatly admire and sometimes play as a standalone work. Sony’s engineering team excels at balancing the large orchestral forces and providing reasonable clarity and presence. In the accompanying booklet, there is a helpful essay by Habakuk Trauber.

It is hard to beat the re-issued Melodiya set of the complete Prokofiev symphonies by Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky. It includes outstanding accounts of the Symphonies No. 1 and 7. Recorded nearly fifty years ago in Moscow, the sound has satisfactory quality; it is clear and decently balanced. Although there are a few rough edges, the playing makes a striking impact and there is a satisfying consistency of performance. Even so, this recording by Tugan Sokhiev with the DSO Berlin is mightily impressive, and I will play it often.

Michael Cookson



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