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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 3, in C minor, Op. 44 (1929) [35:55]
Symphony No. 6, in E-flat minor, Op. 111 (1947) [43:01]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 2018/2019, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Großer Sendesaal, Saarbrücken, Germany
Reviewed from download, in lossless WAV format from Naxos
Also available on CD
SWR MUSIC SWR19086CD [79:01]

This is the first issue in a series of the complete Prokofiev symphonies. Whether the set will contain both versions of the Fourth Symphony as do those of Neeme Järvi (Chandos), Mstislav Rostropovich (Erato) and Dmitri Kitayenko (Phoenix Edition) is unknown at this point. There have been many other sets of these symphonies of late and so Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, chief conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie since the 2017-18 season, is entering a somewhat crowded and highly competitive field. From the evidence on this new recording here I would say he is definitely off to a promising start. Though Inkinen begins with the Third Symphony, I'll start with the Sixth, possibly the greatest in Prokofiev's canon.

Until about the 1990s the Sixth Symphony was a rather rarely encountered work both in the concert hall and on recordings. Now, things have changed, not just because of the proliferation of the composer's complete symphony cycles, but also because the work is finally being recognized for the great piece it is. Arguably, it is Prokofiev's deepest, most heart wrenching and most tragic symphony, a work whose formal complexity and rich mine of ideas are such that in a good performance, you can often hear something you hadn't noticed before. This account by Pietari Inkinen and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie is a fine one, but like many others isn't quite fully satisfying.

Prokofiev revealed that the Sixth Symphony is a reflection on the tragedies of the recently concluded Second World War. The brash mock-fanfare that opens the work isn't as trenchant or crisp sounding as it could be here. But the exposition, comprised of two rather subdued dark themes, goes well as Inkinen employs judicious tempos, points up essential detail and uses imaginative phrasing throughout. The funeral march that launches the development section comes across quite effectively in its somber and mournful character, but in the faster music that follows Inkinen adopts a tempo that is slightly too brisk. That said, he makes a good case for his approach as the music is highly detailed here and the climactic moments have plenty of crushing power. There follows those haunting wavering horns, said by some to represent air raid sirens signaling the all-clear after a bombing raid, but here they lack distinction as the music needs greater extremes at both ends of its dynamics. The recapitulation and coda are well conceived and well played, however.

While the first movement may not be a complete success, the next two are most convincing, both in concept and in execution. Inkinen's phrasing is right on target, detail and balances are just fine, and the orchestra performs brilliantly. Sound reproduction throughout the symphony is superb. Of twenty other versions I have of this work I would rank this account perhaps in the top five, behind Kitayenko (Phoenix Edition), Litton (BIS), Alsop (Naxos), and Gergiev (Mariinsky).

So, while this Sixth is quite good, in the Third Symphony Inkinen and company are even better, but I'll elaborate on this more fully below. As many may be aware the work is derived from Prokofiev's rather diabolical and masterful opera The Fiery Angel. The reason he recycled the music from this opera has for years been attributed to Prokofiev's supposed belief he would likely never get the work performed—actually it wasn't ever staged in his lifetime. However, recent revelations suggest that Prokofiev's sudden adoption of the Christian Science religion in 1924 placed him at odds with the extremist religious elements in this opera, including use of Mephistopheles as a character, exorcisms, and various other satanic elements, as well as an overall medieval spiritual outlook. He may therefore have decided to abandon efforts to get it staged. Whatever the reason, happily both the opera and symphony are performed with some regularity today, though they are far from the standard repertory.

In all four movements of this symphony Inkinen's tempos, dynamics, rubato, accenting and other aspects of phrasing are splendidly conceived and well executed by this fine orchestra. The first movement climaxes come off with plenty of impact and drama and the weird, otherworldly character of the ensuing panel is expressed with plenty of atmosphere and color. The sinister and agitated character of the last two movements is brought off most effectively. To focus on a few more specific highlights, let me cite the intense and thrilling first movement development section, how it builds to reach the powerful and tortured statement of the main theme and then explode with the brash and acid-drenched march that eventually yields to the haunting recapitulation. The orchestra's playing in the third movement is utterly brilliant, especially in the way the players impart such a diabolical sound to those slithering strings and their ghostly wind-over-the-graves menace. The finale comes on from the opening with a different kind of diabolical character in its crushing power and utter wantonness. It's not decibels that Inkinen looks for here though, its impact and atmosphere, and those two he achieves. That said, I do have one very minor quibble: the jazzy muted trumpet jabs in the frenetic rush near the end of the finale (4:42-5:16), do not emerge clearly. It must be the choice of Inkinen to play them down because the sound reproduction is quite excellent. Again, this is only a minor flaw.

In fact, overall this performance challenges my previous favorite account of this symphony, the Muti/Philadelphia version (Philips). There are other very noteworthy efforts by Leinsdorf (Sony/RCA), Weller (Decca), Kitayenko (Phoenix Edition), Järvi (Chandos) and probably a few others. So, Inkinen is easily among the best of them here and is perhaps the first choice. For one thing, his account is arguably just as compelling as Muti's, but the latter's is coupled only with the Classical Symphony, thus yielding a stingy timing of 49:01. In the end, I must assess Inkinen's volume 1 in this series as having a very good Prokofiev Sixth but an outstanding Third.

Robert Cummings

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