Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1952) [32:36]
The Love for Three Oranges – Suite, Op. 33bis: excerpts (1919) [4:09]
Lieutenant Kijé – Suite, Op. 60 (1934) [18:54]
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 2016, Sala São Paulo, Brazil
NAXOS 8.573620 [55:42]
Marin Alsop concludes her Prokofiev symphony cycle with one of the composer’s last compositions and sometimes considered the weakest of his symphonies. It contains few of the modernisms of his previous works in the genre, but compensates with a deep feeling of nostalgia in its lyrical nature. I first heard it years ago in a recording by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra that treated the symphony as a light-hearted work with its revised ending. It was sometimes derogatively referred to as Prokofiev’s “TV Symphony!’ Thank goodness those days are long gone and one can appreciate the piece for what it is—a nostalgic look at the composer’s past tinged with sadness, but not bitterness.
Alsop captures the lyrical aspects of the work really well. I find her more successful than Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony (Philips) in his generally excellent cycle. His strengths lay in projecting the power of the bigger symphonies, namely the Fifth and Sixth, which are the weaker segments in Alsop’s cycle. Alsop also has the advantage of a superior recording in the acoustically friendlier Sala São Paulo. The orchestra is superb throughout, but special mention should be made of the woodwinds that have notable solos in the work. While her tempos are mainly in the norm, she varies them more than Gergiev. The most noticeable case is the second movement, where he adopts a faster tempo from the beginning and maintains it. Alsop, on the other hand, has a slower initial phrase that borders on the pedantic and then speeds up a bit, though she’s generally slower in this movement. However near the end she really lets go. It’s very exciting this way, but one could justifiably argue that it’s too fast and out of character with what precedes it. Her tempos for the first and third movements are more flowing than Gergiev’s, and the warmth she brings to the Romantic themes is emotionally satisfying without being overly intense. Like Gergiev, Alsop prefers the original, reflective ending of the finale, but the disc also adds the revised ending that Prokofiev was forced to add in order to be compensated by way of a Stalin Prize as part of his “rehabilitation” during the Zhdanov era.
While I have no hesitation in preferring Alsop in this symphony, notwithstanding the merits of the Gergiev, there have been some more recent accounts that challenge Alsop. I was very impressed, for example, with Andrew Litton’s recording with the Bergen Philharmonic on BIS, the sound of which is superior to all of the others I have heard and his interpretation is a fine one, too. He also prefers the original finale, but includes the entire last movement with the revised ending. Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony (Onyx), in a well-received account I have not heard, like Alsop includes just the final bars of the revised ending. Thus, there is plenty from which to choose for one collecting the Prokofiev Seventh Symphony. Much will depend on the various companion pieces in order to avoid excessive duplication.
Whereas the other recordings mentioned contain another symphony, Alsop includes music in a lighter vein from earlier in Prokofiev’s career that makes for suitable and attractive disc mates.
The suite that Prokofiev devised from his music to the film Lieutenant Kijé is heard here in its usual orchestral version. Alsop is engaging in capturing the spirit of the music. The orchestra performs as well as they do for the symphony, but here the suave trumpet playing deserves special mention in the trumpet’s solo role. Although I found nothing to criticize in this account, I generally prefer the version from the film that employs a bass soloist in the folksongs of the second (Romance) and fourth (Troika) movements. I have an older recording with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony with Arnold Voketaitis as soloist. The purely orchestral solos in those movements are more than sufficient to portray their character, but the vocal additions from the film score add so much more colour they will always take precedence for me.
As an interlude between the symphony and the suite, Alsop includes two excerpts from the Suite of the Love for Three Oranges, the familiar March and the Scherzo, both adding up to four minutes of music. Based on the performance of these excerpts and the rather short timing of the disc, Alsop could have included the whole suite of six movements which would have made this an even better bargain. As it is, the CD is certainly recommendable for anyone collecting Alsop’s Prokofiev series and for those wanting this particular programme. Alsop clearly has an affinity for Prokofiev and a wonderful orchestra at her command. Richard Whitehouse contributes his usual informative notes as well.