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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 “Classical Symphony” (1917) [14:28]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [44:03]
Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan
rec. 2014/15, Studio 5, MCO, Hilversum, the Netherlands.

Prokofiev’s First and Fifth symphonies have often been coupled together and remain his best-known works in this genre. Opulently recorded, American conductor James Gaffigan’s Classical Symphony is well-paced, witty and urbane in the first movement, refined light of touch in the Larghetto and suitably equestrian in the Gavotta. This is a well-rounded performance full of neo-classical reserve and therefore less edgy than some recordings. Even in the swift pace of the Finale you have the feeling that the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic is playing well within its expert boundaries, and with the superb detail in the recording an analytical ear will hear nothing at all out of place.

The main meat of this pairing is of course the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100, composed under the shadow of war and resonant with tragic sentiments to go along with equally necessary moods of heroism and striving towards victorious triumph. The orchestra’s brass players make a particularly fine contribution in this regard, with a fullness of sound and topped by a tremendous trumpet that makes climaxes all the more special. With a Rolls-Royce standard of production this is a recording in which to immerse yourself; Prokofiev’s orchestration unfolding in a sublimely natural perspective but with all of the bass oomph and detail you could wish for. The cogency of the interpretation makes turning the music off once it has started almost a criminal act, and each movement captivates and communicates with verve and plenty of impact both sensory and intellectual.

Where to go from here? There are too many recordings of these works around to make any definitive evaluation as to an absolute favourite. If you are looking at SACD recordings of the Fifth Symphony then there is Vladimir Jurowski with the Russian National Orchestra on the Pentatone label (PTC5186083), but despite the Russian character of this fine recording it doesn’t quite have the refinement in performance or sheer magnificent recorded sound of this Challenge version. The Exon label has both the First and Fifth paired with the Sydney Symphony under Vladimir Ashkenazy in performances that rather underwhelmed reviewer Andrew Morris (review). If there is any criticism to be made of this Dutch recording is that, as alluded to with regard to the First Symphony, there is an air of cushioned comfort about the performance that doesn’t quite push the envelope in the way Herbert von Karajan did in his 1968 Deutsche Grammophon recording. There is no lack of drive and passionate energy in the music and I’m very happy to recommend Gaffigan’s excellent recording, but if you are looking for an extra sprinkling of cold-war grit and the white heat of the Berlin Philharmonic in full cry then Karajan’s now elderly recording strips away any hint of fat and leaves us with no doubt as to Prokofiev’s raw vision.

In summary then, this is a top-notch performance and a state of the art recording which will not disappoint. If you are looking a Prokofiev First and Fifth for our times then turn up the volume and indulge.

Dominy Clements



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