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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op. 111 (1945-47) [40:44]
Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 27 in C minor, Op. 85 (1949) [35:36]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2018/19 Konserthus, Oslo

This Lawo Classics release is the second and final of two albums of symphonic works from Russian/Soviet composers Myaskovsky and Prokofiev with Vasily Petrenko conducting the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Petrenko has chosen to conduct Myaskovsky’s Twenty-Seventh Symphony and the Prokofiev Sixth Symphony, works that were premiered just three years apart. I was keenly anticipating this release, having already reviewed Petrenko’s impressive first album comprising of Myaskovsky’s Twenty-First Symphony and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony

Myaskovsky and Prokofiev were friends, and their lives were connected in several ways. Although Myaskovsky was actually ten years older than Prokofiev, they both commenced study at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1906, even sharing the same classes. (Incidentally, the Saint Petersburg Conservatory was also the alma mater of Vasily Petrenko the conductor of this album.) Brilliant orchestrators Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov were amongst their teachers and Glazunov was the Conservatory director. In their emerging years, of the two composers Myaskovsky was the more conservative, whereas the younger Prokofiev was regarded as an enfant terrible with works such as Sarcasms for piano, Op. 17. They were to live through terrifying times, namely the First World War and the Revolution of 1917 which led to Prokofiev emigrating to the West, initially to San Francisco in 1918. Myaskovsky who stayed in Moscow, was injured and shell-shocked while fighting as a conscript in the Red Army, then had to endure the outrages of Civil War between 1917-24.

Having spent eighteen years in the West, after four years of moving back and forth between his homes in Paris and Moscow, in 1936 Prokofiev and his family returned for good, to what was then the Soviet Union under the iron grip of the Stalinist regime. Many of Prokofiev’s friends were shocked by his determination to return; certainly it was a decision fraught with danger. That very year the Great Terror (also known as the Great Purges) began, with arrests, show trials, expulsions to the dreaded Siberian forced-labour camps, torture and execution. For the intelligentsia, which included composers, the purge involved cracking down on artistic dissent from the absolute doctrine of Soviet Realism. When Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and their fellow Soviet-era composers wrote music, the threat of State censorship loomed large over them. The infamous ‘Zhdanov Decree’ of February 1948 singled out a group of composers including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov and Myaskovsky and the Politburo denounced them for ‘formalism’ and the ‘renunciation of the basic principles of classical music’, writing instead ‘muddled, nerve-racking’ noise that ‘turned music into cacophony’. The group of denounced composers were hamstrung by the ‘Zhdanov Decree’; their music was under scrutiny and they constantly ran the risk of censure, sanction and persecution.

Written in 1945-47, Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony was premiered in October 1947 in Leningrad by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky. Prokofiev’s inspiration for the symphony is bound up with his response to the war years and his failing health; he wrote, ‘Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed’. Falling foul of the Soviet anti-formalism policies, which required an upbeat and straightforward ‘victory symphony’ for its complex construction and sombre character, the symphony was singled out for denunciation by the authorities. After its premiere, it was placed on a precluded list and sidelined.

Petrenko satisfactorily captures the unsettling mood of anxiety pervades the opening movement Allegro moderato. A curious sense of isolation is never far away, and to me the dismal march evokes the marching of war-weary troops. There are tension and distress in the central movement Largo yet I’m never entirely convinced. In the final movement Vivace, the increase in orchestral weight lacks conviction and I don’t experience the ending as especially valedictory or emphatic, as it is achieved by my preferred recording, Seiji Ozawa with the Berliner Philharmonic. Ozawa’s account was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1991 in the Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin. Although released as a single CD, my recording is part of Ozawa’s complete set of Prokofiev symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon – Collectors’ Edition. This is an underrated set that I praise highly in my review.

Myaskovsky, too, was denounced for infusing ‘pessimism’ into his music and, as a lecturer, for advancing the cause of ‘inharmonious music’ to his pupils. Completed in late 1949, his Twentieth-Seventh Symphony was his last, written during the illness that beset him during his final years and, unlike Prokofiev, he did not live to hear the premiere of the symphony. It was introduced under Alexander Gauk in December 1950 in Moscow some few months after his death and received a posthumous Stalin Prize. The influences in the score of the Russian Late/Post Romantic symphonic tradition are marked, notably Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Rachmaninov. Prokofiev opined that ‘Myaskovsky was something of a philosopher, his music is intelligent, passionate, sombre and self-absorbed.’

The symphony looks back to a past generation. Under Petrenko, despite the occasional uplifting and melodic string passages that strongly remind me of Glazunov, a mood of reflection and a world-weary farewell are prominent. The playing of the slow central movement is most successful, so emotionally moving, with a glorious sound from the strings. I believe the performance of the Oslo Philharmonic here is a slight improvement over the Prokofiev, nevertheless I am left with a feeling of what could have been. My first choice recording remains Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation in 1991/93 at Moscow Conservatoire, originally released on Olympia Records. My recording forms part of the reissued Svetlanov sixteen CD set of the Myaskovsky (the complete symphonies on Warner - French edition), that was also reissued on Russian Disc (1993) and on Alto-Olympia (2003 & 2019) – review.

In both the Prokofiev and Myaskovsky symphonies, Petrenko and his Oslo players play well enough, but I do not sense enough resolve or feeling of total engagement with the scores. The extent of emotional intensity that I believe these works need, especially in the Prokofiev, falls short here under Petrenko and in my view the music undoubtedly fails to blaze and gleam. Recording in the Konserthus, Oslo in DXD 24bit/352.8kHz, the engineering team has provided sound which is acceptable but a touch too close for my taste. Music writer Philip Borg-Wheeler is the author of the interesting and worthwhile booklet essay.

The first Lawo album of Myaskovsky and Prokofiev symphonies from Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic was rewarding; by comparison this second one is uninspiring and something of a let-down; superior alternatives are available in the catalogues.

Michael Cookson

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