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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Symphony No.2 in D minor Op.40 [35.12]
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.44 [37.16]
State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 2016, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Moscow
Reviewed in surround 5.0 PENTATONE PTC5186624 SACD [72.45]
This is the first disc of a complete cycle from Jurowski and his Russian orchestra. By starting with 2 and 3, Jurowski has got two of the hardest three out of the way first. Only number 4, in both its versions, is remaining, and unless he couples both on one disc they can be paired with more amenable works thus reducing listener discomfort. The Symphony No.2 is in two movements. The first is a rather relentless ear battering but very exciting listening. The second movement is a set of variations and only intermittently noisy but it is as far from the elegant 'Classical Symphony', No.1, with which the composer eased his way into the genre, as it is possible to go. The Symphony No.3 shares much thematic material with his lurid and violent opera The Fiery Angel. It is quite definitely symphonic in that themes are developed and recur at various points. It also has four movements but little else is conventional. The astringent sounds Prokofiev extracts from his large orchestra are a continuous challenge but there is relaxation too and it does not exhibit the relentlessness of the second. If either of the two works is unknown to you, then you are urged to repair the gap in your knowledge. Prokofiev was a great composer and his seven symphonies are all worth the time spent listening.
Performance-wise the expectation is that a new recording by a Russian band with a Russian conductor is going to sweep all before them. But times have changed. Jurowski is no Rozhdestvensky and the SASOR are not a Soviet band. This is modern civilised music-making, more akin to the LSO and Abbado who recorded No.3 for Decca in the late 1960s. These performances are very well played, directed with care and attention to detail and recorded with spectacular clarity and dynamic range. However they are never dangerous and in this pair of symphonies one needs to be closer to the edge. Rather unexpectedly, the recordings we had recently from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra directed by their Ukrainian principal conductor Kirill Karabits stray considerably closer to the edge. As I noted in the review of the 3rd back in 2014 the BSO musicians hold their heads up high in the most august company. By the time their cycle was completed it represented a more significant challenge to the old Rozdestvensky set on Melodiya than could ever have been expected. Unfortunately, no one could claim the BSO recordings on Onyx are up to Pentatone's standard shown here.
So the issue for the purchaser is more to do with allegiances, maybe to Vladimir Jurowski as a fine music director of our own London Philharmonic, or perhaps to having the best modern recording. Hopefully your allegiance is to Prokofiev and a conviction that there are multiple ways to play his fine symphonies, that you already own the BSO/Karabits set and you want to hear this one as well, regardless of what I say.