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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]
Tale of The Stone Flower, Op. 118 – Ballet Suites:
The Mistress of Copper Mountain (Prologue) [4:14]
Wedding Suite, Op. 126, Nos. 1—3 [11:49]
Gypsy Fantasy, Op. 127, Nos. 1—5 [8:10]
Wedding Suite, Op. 126 (concluded), Nos. 4—5 [4:59]
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Dima Slobodeniouk
rec. 2016-18, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Reviewed in stereo
BIS BIS-2301 SACD [62:42]

The Gambler and Stone Flower suites on this BIS SACD have not been regularly performed or recorded in the past, and that's regrettable because their music is quite excellent, despite the considerably different styles in the two scores: The Gambler is bold, driven and occasionally lyrical; The Stone Flower reveals the softer, mellower side of Prokofiev where he spins one catchy tune after another, caring little that his music would likely be greeted by many as hopelessly old fashioned and yet another example of a Soviet composer surrendering to the will of Stalin and his lackeys in the Arts. The brief Autumnal Sketch is also not a commonly encountered piece, in part because it's a very early work that divulges a debt to Rachmaninov. I welcome such recordings of Prokofiev's rarities though, because they offer so many potential rewards to the listener and oftentimes their performances unearth some new understanding of the music.

Here conductor Slobodeniouk and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra come together to perform the works most impressively, yielding new ways indeed to hear the music. As for his credentials, Moscow-born, Finland-based Dima Slobodeniouk has served as Principal Conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra since 2016 and music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia since 2013. He has guest conducted the Royal Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic, Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras and many other world class ensembles and serves as artistic director of the Sibelius Festival. Slobodeniouk and his Lahti Symphony have impressed me in the recent past with their BIS SACD of the Prokofiev Second and Tchaikovsky First Piano Concertos, with soloist Haochen Zhang (review). This orchestra also turned in excellent work in their Sibelius symphony cycle on BIS led by Okko Kamu.

Here the Four Portraits and Dénouement from The Gambler takes off with plenty of energy and color in the portrait of Alexei, actually the very music which vigorously opens the opera. Soon Prokofiev introduces other music associated with Alexei that reveals his many sides, moving from boastful and playful to ponderous and doubtful, and then to anxious and mocking. Slobodeniouk misses no shift in the emotional trajectory here, and his Lahti ensemble follow his subtle adjustments in dynamics, tempo and accenting with alert and spirited playing. The ensuing portrait of Grandmother contains probably the most lyrical music in the work, and here once again conductor and orchestra are right on target, as Prokofiev's themes come vividly to life with very sensitive playing, casting aside the once common idea that The Gambler is mostly devoid of strong emotion.

The General comes across convincingly as nasty and desperate here, appropriately so, and Slobodeniouk deftly unpeels the many layers of Polina's persona, showing her complexity, mystery and unpredictability with sensitive phrasing that among much else divulges many shades of dynamics and very elegant, often restrained playing. For once a conductor allows us to clearly hear the deeply profound theme that Polina sings in the opera right before Alexei goes off to the roulette wheel. It begins on oboe here and curiously the first statement of this theme is so often buried or obscured in other performances. Also, Slobodeniouk is subtle in the climactic passage that soon follows, eschewing the typical approach of ramping up the fortes with a blunt, harsh treatment in favor of a less weighty and more expressive, detailed rendering.

The Dénouement, the fifth movement of the suite, contains music not used for the end of the opera but rather for Alexei's gambling at the roulette wheel. Anyway, it is extremely well imagined by Slobodeniouk, his orchestra delivering a thrilling account of this frantic, almost frenzied music, performing better here than in any other recording I know of. They whip up true excitement in the music's pounding but bouncy rhythms, the brass then playing the glorious main theme variant with clarity and polish. Instrumental balances throughout this movement are as perfect as I've ever heard them. In the end, I must assess this as the finest recorded performance of The Gambler suite, better than Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya and other labels), Järvi (Chandos) and the less commonly encountered Serge Baudo (HNH).

As for Autumnal Sketch, this is also a fine performance, and of seven other recordings I have of this short piece, I would have no problem recommending this version to anyone interested in the music. Indeed, I'm glad to have this account of it, because Slobodeniouk takes a brisker and quite vital approach to the music, where other conductors, except Järvi, are more measured or even ponderous, not necessarily the avenue to take in this work. Thus, Slobodeniouk or Järvi would probably be the choice here.

The soaring, gorgeous main theme of the Stone Flower ballet, largely dominated by brass, launches the Mistress of Copper Mountain, which carries the “Prologue” subtitle here. It is sensitively phrased by Slobodeniouk, the Lahti brass players giving it a fullness and sense of pride, yet sounding elegant and even imparting a vulnerable aspect too. This music is also heard at the outset of the ballet, but its Prologue also contains a second but briefer number called Danilo and His Work. The Mistress of Copper Mountain music continues without pause, bridging right into The Wedding Suite. In all these Stone Flower suite movements Slobodeniouk demonstrates his uncanny sense to seemingly get every tempo right; in addition his dynamics, accenting, rubato and instrumental balances are equally well judged, wringing out the most from this music, whether its the gorgeous character of the opening melody in No. 1, Amorous Dance, or the chipper nature of the catchy Maidens' Dance (No. 3), or the exoticism of Gypsy Dance (No. 2 from Gypsy Fantasy), or the rowdy irreverence and good cheer of the ensuing Severyan's Dance. Needless to say, the orchestra plays splendidly for him throughout.

Slobodeniouk definitely has the edge over Järvi (Chandos) and Varviso (Decca) in their Stone Flower excerpt recordings, and if Slobodeniouk would record the whole ballet, he would likely challenge Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya) and Noseda (Chandos). Incidentally, though The Stone Flower may not have the depth of Romeo and Juliet, its music is as attractive but still vastly underrated. If you love the Tchaikovsky ballets and have no familiarity with the Stone Flower, you may want to give this disc a try.

BIS offers vivid, well balanced sound reproduction, the best I've ever heard in these suites. Andrew Huth's notes are profuse and very informative. This is a disc to covet, something not just for Prokofiev mavens but for others interested in worthwhile 20th century music as well. Highest recommendations!

Robert Cummings

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