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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 “Classical”, in D major, Op. 25 (1917) [13:58]
Symphony No. 2, in D minor, Op. 40 (1925) [36:14]
Symphony No. 3, in C minor, Op. 44 (1928) [35:19]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. May, 2015 (No. 1); August/September, 2017 (Nos. 2 & 3) at Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed in stereo
BIS BIS-2174 SACD [86:33]

This SACD marks the concluding chapter of Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra's Prokofiev Symphony cycle, a series which I have followed all along and have found consistently excellent. It is clear that Litton has a deep understanding of Prokofiev's complex, protean style. Protean indeed: are there two successive symphonies in any other composer's canon as stylistically different and temperamentally antithetical as the elegant and witty Classical Symphony and the iron-and-steel Second? If there is another example even remotely close, I haven't come across it. Yet, different as those two works are, as well as the Third is from the previous two for that matter, they still sound like products of the same ingenious mind.

The disc starts off with an effervescent performance of the Classical Symphony. What is most appealing about this account is that Litton doesn't rush the outer movements, as so many other conductors do. The wit and elegance of the first movement emerge so naturally, thanks to Litton's subtle phrasing and the splendid playing of the Bergen players. The interpretation is actually fairly straightforward here but with proper accenting and subtle use of dynamics. The ensuing Larghetto is dreamy and graceful in the playing of the main theme, and vivacious and joyous when the tempo picks up for the middle section. Litton phrases the very brief Gavotte rather deftly, as the main theme sort of winds up cautiously at the start and then moves along wittily. The finale has plenty of energy and the strings and woodwinds play with precision and elegance throughout, with much significant detail emerging too. This performance is simply a breath of fresh air and can stand with the best efforts by Karajan (DG), Bernstein (Sony) and many others of this highly popular work.

The Second Symphony, long considered a difficult, aggressively modern work, is actually quite a fine creation, not nearly as high in decibels and dissonance as some have suggested. Yes, it's not a tame or traditional work for its time, but it's hardly radical, coming a decade after The Rite of Spring. The first movement needs plenty of energy and muscularity to succeed and Litton and company meet that challenge handsomely, the ensemble performing with spirit and all-out commitment. Litton clarifies textures in this densely scored, frenetic opening panel, letting you hear detail often buried in other performances. Try, for example, the development section, where the climax features a hail of brass, strings, woodwinds, percussion and really the kitchen sink, with many contrapuntal lines running, creating what can be a confusing passage for some conductors to sort out. But when the scoring thickens Litton holds the tempo back (6:32) and, using proper instrumental balances, he elucidates detail from the competing lines so that you hear Prokofiev's brilliant and brash orchestration as well as in any other recording that I know from the twenty or more in my collection.

The long second movement, a theme and six variations scheme, is another challenge for conductors to bring off. There's much variety and contrast here: the lovely main theme introduced by oboe; the dour first variation; the breezy but mischievous second; the witty and brash third; the weird and haunting fourth; the athletic but frenetic fifth; and the sinister sixth, which features a climax involving material from the first movement. Litton captures each mood change and each emotional shift with tempos, dynamics and accenting that fit the chameleonic character of the music, and with instrumental balances that once again seem perfect. The sixth variation straight through to its stomping climax has hardly ever sounded as convincing as here. The Bergen PO play with accuracy and sensitivity throughout. In the end, this must be ranked among the top three of four accounts of this symphony, along with Alsop (Naxos), Karabits (Onyx), and perhaps Weller (Decca).

Litton and the Bergen players are just as successful in the Third Symphony, which is based on material from Prokofiev's otherworldly opera The Fiery Angel. The first movement features two lyrical themes of rather tortured emotional character and two faster themes, the first of which is rather menacing and sinister and introduced by pizzicato strings, and the second an ominous brass-dominated theme that explodes into a diabolical march at the climax of the development section. Litton phrases the lyrical themes with great feeling, employing moderate tempos, and his usual astutely chosen dynamics and accenting. He is generally sparing in his use of rubato and tends to follow the score's markings quite faithfully. As a result the passionate, restless and dark character of the lyrical themes emerges convincingly here, and so do the menace and power of the faster music presented later on. The development section is filled with tension and the climax is most effective in its crushing hysteria. Once again the Bergen Philharmonic is precise and accurate, and fully committed here and throughout the symphony.

The mostly subdued but foreboding second movement (Andante) has the right eerie character in Litton's hands and so does the utterly sinister Scherzo that ensues. Its outer sections feature slithering, creepy string playing, brilliantly executed here, that portrays a wind-over-the-graveyard effect. The trio is somewhat soothing at times but still conveys a troubled spirit, while the return of the main theme builds effectively toward a dark ending. The finale, the most purely diabolical movement of the four, is grimly and convincingly played here: the music opens as strings growl and soar and scream, percussion instruments agitate and brass bellow. The middle section brings a momentary respite before the frenzied conclusion comes: strings are more frantic now as a jazzy trumpet dances wildly and bells warn of doom. A percussion-laden catastrophe comes at the climax and the work ends violently. Oh, it's all so well conceived and played here, thus crowning an excellent account of this powerful, disturbing symphony. This performance ranks with my previous favorites, Muti (Philips) and Inkinen (SWR Music).

The sound reproduction in all three symphonies is vivid and well balanced, fully state of the art. Overall, I would rank Litton's Prokofiev symphony cycle among the very best of this growing lot, standing with Kitayenko (Capriccio), Alsop (Naxos), Gaffigan (Challenge Records) and, on video, Gergiev (Arthaus Musik). This new disc, I must say, will surely be on my Recordings of the Year list: not only are the performances superb and the sound reproduction excellent, but the buyer gets 86:33 worth of music, the most I have ever encountered by far on an SACD or, for that matter, CD. Highest recommendations!

Robert Cummings

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