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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op 25 ‘Classical’ (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, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway. DSD
BIS BIS-2174 SACD [86:33]

Andrew Litton has enjoyed a lenghty association with the Bergen Philharmonic. He had a long spell as Principal conductor (2003-15) and is now Conductor Laureate. With this generously filled SACD, BIS reach the end of their Prokofiev symphony cycle from Bergen. I’ve heard and admired all of the previous instalments: the Fourth and Seventh (review) and the Fifth (review). I bought the Sixth after it was favourably received by Dave Billinge (review). Litton and the orchestra ventured beyond the symphonies: I enjoyed the fine recording of the three suites from Romeo and Juliet (review) and Dominy Clements was very complimentary about a disc that included two piano concertos played by Freddy Kempf (review).

This last release in the cycle brings us one of the composer’s best-loved and most frequently played works along with two others which, outside complete recorded cycles, are rather less frequently heard. The ‘Classical’ Symphony richly deserves its popularity, even if it is atypical of the composer. Andrew Huth sums it up admirably in his booklet essay as a “cheerful but ultimately escapist piece of fun”. I enjoyed this Bergen performance very much. The first movement is perky and good humoured in character and the orchestra’s witty and incisive playing emphasises those characteristics. The superb BIS recording achieves splendid clarity and definition. Litton shapes the Larghetto very nicely; this is a graceful, eloquent performance. After a sprightly rendition of the Gavotte the quicksilver finale sparkles thanks to deft, energetic playing. This super performance gets the disc off to an excellent start.

With the Second Symphony we’re in very different territory. The symphony is a most odd construct, consisting of just two movements, the second of which is a substantial Theme and Variations. Furthermore, as Andrew Huth points out, in the second movement “it’s not always immediately clear just what is being varied”. If you add to that the fact that Prokofiev’s language is often at its most dissonant in this symphony – the composer himself described it as ‘made out of iron and steel’ - then it’s not surprising, I think, that the work is not all that often played. Mr Huth says that the composer himself entertained doubts about the work and he adds the interesting information, which was new to me, that towards the end of his life, Prokofiev drew up a list of future projects, one of which was to prepare a new three-movement version of the Second, which would have had the opus number 136. Apparently, Prokofiev’s original design for the symphony was a three-movement work in which the variations would have been placed second: did he intend in 1953 to compose a brand-new finale, I wonder?

I think that Andrew Litton and his Bergen orchestra give us an excellent account of the Second. The dissonant, iconoclastic first movement, often brittle in texture, is driven forward forcefully. The superb recording has terrific impact, enhancing the vivid playing. Much of the music is loud in volume but even so one is aware that the recording has a very good dynamic range – that impression will be brought out even more in the second movement. The performance is tense throughout. The second movement consists of a Theme and six variations. The variations all have a clear end-point but even so it’s helpful that BIS track each one separately, as happens also on the recordings by Marin Alsop and Kirill Karabits. The gentle, lyrical character of the theme, announced by the oboe, comes as a significant contrast – even a relief – after the hyperactive turbulence of the preceding movement. There’s a veiled quality to the scoring in the first variation; the hushed orchestral sound is very imaginative. I was greatly impressed by the way the Bergen PO plays the fourth variation; they display great delicacy and finesse in this gentle, harmonically ambiguous music. In complete contrast, the playing is light-footed in the next variation. This is almost balletic in nature and the speed and energy of the performance are admirable. The sixth and final variation is march-like, growing significantly in power as it progresses. Eventually, at 5:07 the oboe returns with the almost fragile Theme, paving the way for a hushed conclusion to the work.

The second movement of this symphony is hard to grasp because the variations don’t link to the theme with sufficient clarity. Indeed, I continue to find the work as a whole hard to understand. There’s a great deal to admire in the imaginative, inventive scoring of the variations, even if the musical logic eludes me. The first movement is almost intimidating. Unlike his last three symphonies, I find Prokofiev’s Second difficult to follow; it’s a score I respect but I can’t honestly say I love it. That said, Andrew Litton and the Bergen PO make a splendid case for it. The orchestra surmount the virtuoso demands easily and bring commitment, energy and, in the quieter stretches, great finesse to the music. They’re aided in this endeavour by a superb BIS recording.

The Third Symphony, though challenging in several ways, is a more approachable composition. Prokofiev composed it in 1929, basing it on material from his opera, The Fiery Angel. Andrew Huth is careful to point out, though, that the symphony was no cut-and-paste job and he rightly cautions against trying to relate the music too closely to the opera itself.

Prokofiev reverted to the four-movement form and the clangourous start of the first movement, with brittleness in the treble and a thumping bass, almost makes one feel we’re in for a repeat of the previous symphony. Such is not the case, however. There’s more contrast – both of mood and dynamic – than was the case in the Second’s opening movement. At times the music becomes calmer, though even in these episodes tension remains and Andrew Litton is careful to maintain the intensity. I like Andrew Huth’s point that, here and elsewhere, Prokofiev doesn’t actually engage in unvaried repetition of material and that, as a result “each return of an idea provides a further turn of the screw”. In this opening movement, Litton generates a fine sense of purpose and momentum. The BIS recording really does justice to Prokofiev’s Big Picture but it also puts on show a huge amount of inner detail, as in the extended climax that begins around 9:00. In contrast to that climax, the delicate orchestration during the last couple of minutes is fascinating and it’s superbly delivered here.

The soft, diaphanous opening of the Andante is beautifully rendered. As this second movement progresses the music – and orchestration – becomes increasingly other-worldly. It’s a remarkable, shadowy movement during the course of which Prokofiev scarcely raises his voice. Hats off to Litton and the orchestra – and to the engineers – for the way in which this music comes across. The next movement is marked Allegro agitato and the music is indeed ‘agitated’. Though I haven’t had access to a score it is readily apparent that the music bristles with difficulties, such as the repeated wild glissandi for the violins. The Bergen musicians pull it off with complete assurance, of course, but it did cross my mind to wonder what the movement sounded like in some of its earliest performances – Pierre Monteux premiered it in Paris in 1929. Between 2:45 and 6:12 the music becomes slower and a bit more lyrical, though inner tension remains. Then the strange, agitated music returns for a final fling. The Andante mosso introduction to the finale is very powerful and dramatic. The music grips the listener’s attention; it’s intense and dissonant. The scoring is potent and the realism of the recording makes one all the more aware of that – the bass drum contributions certainly make their mark. At 3:53 a bassoon starts an accelerando which leads into the Allegro agitato, which is thrillingly played. The symphony achieves a huge, dark ending which sounds positively spectacular in this performance.

All three symphonies receive very fine performances from Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic. In the ‘Classical’ they make a very well-established work sound dapper and fresh. In the other two symphonies, which are far less familiar, both to players and listeners, they are completely convincing, putting these challenging scores before us with commitment and assurance.

The BIS label has long been a byword for truthful and superbly engineered recordings. These present recordings are in the finest tradition of the house. Producer Robert Suff, working with two different engineering teams, has really delivered the goods in terms of impact, detail and dynamic range. I listened to this hybrid disc using the Stereo SACD layer. As is his wont, Andrew Huth has contributed excellent and informative notes.

My colleague, Robert Cummings, who reviewed this disc before I did was so impressed with it that he made it one of his Recordings of the Year for 2020. Having now caught up with the disc myself, I can see why. I hope he won’t mind me repeating his judgement that it’s “a winner on every count”. It’s certainly a notable conclusion to Andrew Litton’s Prokofiev symphony cycle.

John Quinn

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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