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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Four Portraits and Dénouement from The Gambler, Op 49 [25:54]
Autumnal Sketch, Op 8 [6:33]
The Tale of the Stone Flower – suite [29:19]
Lahti Symphony Orchestra / Dima Slobodeniouk
rec. 2016-2018, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland. DSD
BIS BIS-2301 SACD [62:42]

I’ve heard and admired a good number of Sibelius recordings by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, in all of which they were conducted by Osmo Vänskä. However, this is my first encounter with them under the baton of the Russian, Dima Slobodeniouk who has been their principal conductor since 2016. On this SACD Slobodeniouk offers some less familiar orchestral music by Prokofiev, the bulk of which stems from two stage works composed at either end of his career. When one listens to a recording of music which is less than familiar it helps if the booklet essay is informative. Andrew Huth’s note accompanying this disc is first class and I readily acknowledge my debt to it when it comes to describing the background to the contents of this disc.

Though Prokofiev wrote his four-act opera The Gambler in 1915-16, Mr Huth relates that, for various reasons, only one production was mounted in the composer’s lifetime: that was a production in Brussels, mounted in 1930, which was sung in French. The work was not heard in Russia until 1963. I’ve never heard the complete opera but Andrew Huth explains that it lacks any conventional ‘big numbers’. It seems that Prokofiev found an interesting way round this issue when compiling an orchestral suite. According to his own account, he took a vocal score, tore out the pages which related to each of the four principal characters, and arranged the pages into separate piles. Thus, was he able to assemble an instrumental portrait of each character. The four principals are The General, up to his eyes in debt and waiting to be bailed out by inheriting his aunt’s estate. The said aunt comes to the town where her nephew is living – the fictional Roulettenburg in Germany – and blows her fortune at the gaming tables. The other two characters are Pauline, the General’s ward and Alexei, an impoverished teacher, who loves her. In putting together his suite, Prokofiev added to the four character sketches an orchestral Dénouement using music from the opera’s last scene. Alexei has had a big win at roulette and hopes he can now claim Pauline’s hand but she rejects him, repelled by him resorting to gambling.

The orchestral suite contains interesting music. The portrait of Alexei is crisply delivered by the Lahti orchestra. I liked the second portrait, ‘La Grande Mère’ where initially Prokofiev suggests a rather feisty, independent personality. Around 2:50, though, a little violin solo leads into music that wears a more touching countenance, in which vein the rest of the number plays out. The General’s music, as you might expect, contains a good deal of bluster. The following portrayal of Pauline, the longest segment of the suite, is in marked contrast to the depiction of the General. Initially quiet and tender, around 3:20 the music becomes stronger, perhaps suggesting inner turmoil. The end of the section, however, is very subdued. The Dénouement contains the most dramatic music in the suite, especially after around 2:00; I wonder if the music that we hear after this point depicts Pauline’s rejection of Alexei. These last few minutes are sharp-edged and dissonant.

Dima Slobodeniouk and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra give a well-observed, sharply-etched performance of this suite. In their hands Prokofiev’s music is vivid and colourful.

The short Autumnal Sketch was composed in 1910 and then revised twice, in 1915 and 1934. Andrew Huth surmises that the tone of the music was influenced by the death of Prokofiev’s father a few weeks before composition began. This seems entirely plausible, especially since the composer later wrote that the music ‘reflects an internal world, not external’. He admitted that Rachmaninov was an influence. The piece has an air of unease about it, notwithstanding its surface attractiveness. It seems to me to be very well imagined for orchestra and I wonder how significantly the scoring of the final revision differed from the original, bearing in mind how much more experienced an orchestrator Prokofiev had become by 1934. It’s very well performed here.

The Tale of the Stone Flower, Op 118 was, I think, Prokofiev’s final ballet. He wrote it over the winter of 1948/49 but, as with The Gambler, he was never to see it staged in his lifetime; its first performance was in 1954. The full score plays for about 2 ½ hours and in a bid to generate some cash from it, Prokofiev assembled a number of orchestral works from it. These are: Wedding Suite, Op 126; Gypsy Fantasy, Op 127; Urals Rhapsody, Op 128; and The Mistress of the Copper Mountain, Op 129. Here. Dima Slobodeniouk gives us all these extracts with the exception of Op 128. The arrangement of the music on the disc is slightly surprising. He begins with Op. 129, which is logical since it is the Prologue to the ballet. We then hear the first three numbers of Op 126, followed by Op 127 and then the two closing numbers from Op 126.

Again, I’m indebted to Andrew Huth for information about the ballet itself. The scenario was based on The Malachite Box, a collection of folk and fairy tales from the Urals, published in 1939. Essentially, Danila, a stonecutter who is in love with Katerina, longs to create a perfect work of art from malachite. The villain of the piece is an unpleasant bailiff called Severian (who gets his just desserts eventually). The fourth principal is The Mistress of the Copper Mountain, who Andrew Huth describes as a “strange and somewhat ambiguous figure [who] influences the course of the action”. This latter is “the character who guards the underground treasures of precious stones, and who understands the process of artistic creation”. I’m sure Huth is right to suggest that in the light of his post-1948 struggles with officialdom, Prokofiev probably identified with that character.

Given the scenario and Prokofiev’s desire not to incur the wrath of the Soviet cultural commissars, it is probably no surprise that the music of The Tale of the Stone Flower is accessible and heavily influenced by folk material.

The Mistress of the Copper Mountain is an interesting vignette. The melody voiced primarily by the brass towards the end of the segment (from around 3:10) is a trademark long Prokofiev tune. This leads without a break into Wedding Suite and the ‘Amorous Dance’. The slow, gentle theme given to the violins is, again, characteristic of the composer and it’s in his lyrical, accessible vein. The Lahti orchestra plays it with refinement. Two dances then follow: ‘Dance of the Fiancée’s Girl-Friends’ and ‘Maidens’ Dance’. The latter is especially pleasing.

The music in Wedding Suite comes from Act I and is, Andrew Huth says, “something of a patchwork” of music relating to Danila and Katerina. Gypsy Fantasy, however, which only plays for about eight minutes, is a self-contained divertissement from elsewhere in the ballet. It consists of a tiny Introduction followed by four short, colourful dances. Among these, two particularly caught my ear. ‘Severian’s Dance’ is fast and vibrant. By contrast, ‘Dance of the Gypsy Girl’, which follows it, is tranquil and muted (literally so, in the case of the strings). The selection ends with a return to Wedding Suite and its last two numbers. ‘Ceremonial Dance’ is slow and has an air of mystery. ‘Wedding Dance’ is very folk-influenced and brings proceedings to a suitably celebratory conclusion. Based on what is played here and other music I’ve heard in the past from the ballet, The Tale of the Stone Flower is not in the same league musically as Cinderella, still less Romeo and Juliet. However, the music in this conflation of three concert works extracted from the ballet is attractive and entertaining. It’s played very well indeed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Dima Slobodeniouk conducts with flair.

The music on this disc may not be top-drawer Prokofiev but it’s well worth hearing, especially in such bright, lively performances. I’ve already referred to the excellence of the documentation, Excellent, too, is the BIS sound. I listened to this SACD using the stereo layer. Right from the start I was impressed by the open sound which gives really good left-to-right and front-to-back perspectives. There’s plenty of detail – the piano registers well at the start of The Gambler, for instance – but detail is never allowed to get in the way of a satisfying overview of the orchestral sound.

John Quinn

Previous review: Robert Cummings



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