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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Complete Symphonies
So Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 2011-2016, Sala So Paulo, Brazil
NAXOS 8.506038 [6 CDs: 380:27]

Naxos released these symphonies and the other works on six separate discs from 2012 to 2017, and is now issuing them for the first time as a complete boxed set. The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were initially issued on CD only, while all the others appeared on both CD and Blu-ray. Alsop has two superb performances in this collection, those of the Second and Fourth Symphonies. The Sixth might also be included in this group, and the remaining symphonies too are very fine in concept and execution. The sound reproduction in all these works is consistently fine, easily at or near state of the art levels. On their first release the label provided me with Symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 4 (and their other content) on Blu-ray and the rest on CD, but now I'm reviewing all the works from this new complete set on CD.

Alsop's Classical Symphony features mostly moderate tempos and her phrasing is fairly straightforward. Yet, she applies very subtle use of rubato in the third movement Gavotte theme, and draws very spirited playing from her So Paulo players. Moreover, she points up much critical detail throughout the performance and in the end offers a Classical Symphony that is one of the finest in recent times. Litton (BIS) has a slight edge over Alsop, and Karajan (DG) may also be preferable. Yet, if you had only Alsop in this work, you'd be well served, as her performance is better than most.

As suggested above the two movement Second Symphony here is given an utterly splendid performance. I found Andrew Litton's recent account on BIS (linked below) to be very excellent as well. What both Alsop and Litton understand about this work is that to deliver an effective performance of it, one must not downplay its dissonances and aggressive character, but rather express the music, rough edges and all, for what it is, a dark, tempestuous but often very witty work. Alsop once more allows you to hear much significant detail. In the often densely scored first movement, the climax to the development section comes through clearly with power and spirit. The varied and colorful character of the theme-and-variations second movement is brilliantly phrased and executed. The stomping, hysterical chords at the climax never sounded so fateful and sinister. Alsop and Litton are perhaps the best in this work, though Leinsdorf (Testament) and Weller (Decca), despite older sound, are good alternatives.

The Third Symphony is given a somewhat different approach: in this “fiery” work, largely derived from Prokofiev's fantastic opera The Fiery Angel, she is comparatively subdued and seeks out subtleties in the score. Thus, the agitated opening to the first movement is less weighty and less tumultuous, but there are still ample energy and power later on in this movement, especially in the development section. Here the music builds intensely and delivers two powerful climaxes, the second of which is a blisteringly demonic passage with heavy percussion that is brought off impressively by Alsop and the So Paulo players. The second movement's serene but otherworldly lyricism is well imagined by Alsop and perfectly sets up the wind-over-the-graves music of the ensuing Allegro agitato, where the So Paulo strings play brilliantly as they slither about in a hushed, ghostly manner. The finale has plenty of power in this performance, but again Alsop focuses less on decibels and more on the threatening character of the music―it's chilling, eerie, scary and ends with crushing ferocity. This is a brilliant performance, though Muti (Philips) has the edge over everyone else. That said, Alsop offers an excellent alternative account.

As mentioned above, the Fourth is also given an outstanding performance. Alsop's rendition is among the top four versions of this work, the other contenders being Kitayenko (Capriccio), Litton and Ormandy (Sony). Alsop's first movement is very dramatic and imaginatively phrased. The development section is especially convincing: try the grand statement of the theme originally presented on flute but now taken up mainly by strings (7:31), where contrapuntal elements from horns and other brass blend in to achieve a perfect balance. The second movement's lyrical warmth is mesmerizing here, while the humor and mischief in the ensuing Scherzo come through brilliantly, owing to the fine woodwind playing by the So Paulo players and to Alsop's moderate tempo and subtle phrasing. The finale is also convincing, as Prokofiev's menace at the outset comes across with a deft mixture of creepiness and wit. The main theme is well played and throughout the movement Alsop brings out much meaningful detail to great effect. The brass could have more punch in the faster sections of the coda, which builds to a grand climax here. Still, this is a superb performance.

The Fifth is also a success―mostly, but of course, as with the Classical Symphony, there's much impressive competition. While this is a very good Fifth, it is quite different from most other versions: Alsop and company capture the epic aspects of the first movement quite nicely, but the ensuing Scherzo retains something of its spirit as the music is played in a more expansive tempo than is usual and with a bit less buoyancy and wit. The return of the main theme features plenty of bite though and the music ends dynamically. The third movement's lyrical main theme is well conceived and played and the dark middle section comes across with great impact. This is one of the finest accounts of this powerful Adagio movement. The finale has plenty of energy and wit and serves to crown this performance nicely. Bernstein (Sony, with the NY Philharmonic), Tennstedt (Profil), Yoel Levi (Telarc) and Ormandy (Sony) would be among my first choices in the Fifth, but all these are much older than the Alsop and only the Levi features excellent sound properties by today's standards. Alsop's performance of the Fifth can certainly be called a strong alternative.

The prevailing view that the Fifth is Prokofiev's greatest symphony seems to be slowly changing in favor of the Sixth. The three-movement Sixth is a work full of tragedy and sadness, sometimes even in seemingly happy moments. Alsop employs a faster tempo in the first movement than is customary but is actually closer to Prokofiev's Allegro moderato marking than most conductors. The whole movement is well shaped and played, though I would prefer the funeral march taken at a slightly slower pace. The ensuing Largo is beautifully conceived and played and the finale is about as well rendered as you're likely to hear in any version. The utter catastrophe that Prokofiev placed at the end comes on with devastating force here, in part because the reappearances of the first movement's “dreamy” oboe theme and the now-distorted funeral march theme brilliantly set up the return of the finale's stomping rhythm, which closes the work by crushing everything in its path. This is simply a great account of the Sixth, but surpassed by Kitayenko (Capriccio).

The Prokofiev Seventh also gets a fine performance from Alsop and company. Mostly everything goes well, but for two passages, both regarding tempo: the second movement coda is taken at too hasty a tempo, causing some detail, including rhythmic aspects, to get lost in the resulting muddle; the other misstep comes with the finale's middle section march, which is taken too slowly. The performance of the finale is otherwise excellent: try the return of the big theme from the first movement, and notice that Alsop phrases it beautifully by allowing more string presence and by holding down a bit on brass sonorities, thus yielding greater warmth and passion. She provides the alternate happy ending on a separate track. There are many great Sevenths, including that of Kitayenko, Tennstedt (Profil), Gaffigan (Challenge Classics) and if you can find it on Melodiya or an Eastern European label, the performance of Nikolai Pavlovich Anosov (Rozhdestvensky's father), issued on Parliament in 1960. Alsop's Seventh will certainly serve as an excellent alternative to these.

As noted in the heading, all the symphonies in this set appear with additional works on their respective discs. Nos. 1 and 2 share their CD with Dreams, an early orchestral work by Prokofiev that is interesting if not among his better efforts. Alsop's version has the edge over the other two accounts of the work, by Jrvi (Chandos) and Kuchar (Naxos). No. 3's disc mates are the little known early piece Autumnal Sketch and the rather popular Scythian Suite. Alsop and company give the Scythian Suite a slightly scaled down performance. That said, it is still quite energetic, colorfully interpreted and very well played. Andrew Litton (BIS), however, would be my first choice among recent accounts, and as for the better older efforts, there are Dorati (Mercury), Jrvi (Chandos), Previn (Philips) and Abbado (DG). Alsop delivers a solid reading of the work, but perhaps a level below these. Autumnal Sketch gets a very effective performance with Alsop's brisk pacing and subtle phrasing. Fine efforts by Dima Slobodeniouk (BIS) and Jrvi (Chandos) are similarly paced, and Alsop's reading can stand proudly with theirs, as well as with two other convincing performances, featuring more moderate tempos, by Karabits (Onyx) and Ashkenazy (Decca).

The Fourth Symphony is appropriately paired with the complete Prodigal Son ballet music. I say “appropriately” because most of the symphony's themes were taken from this ballet. Alsop's performance is top notch, equaling or even surpassing her formidable competition, which includes Jrvi (Chandos), Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya), and Michail Jurowski (cpo). Her Fifth Symphony is paired with The Year 1941, a colorful but somewhat less compelling wartime work by Prokofiev. Once again Alsop delivers a fine performance, a more detailed and incisive one than Kuchar (Naxos). Only one other recording of the work exists that I know of, that by Alexander Titov on Northern Flowers, which I have not heard.

The Sixth is coupled with Waltz Suite, a collection of six excellent waltzes derived from War and Peace, Cinderella and Lermontov. Alsop delivers splendid accounts of all six, showing that she fully understands the theatrical side of Prokofiev, which she later demonstrated again with her impressive recording of the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet score, reviewed here by me in 2018 (review). Once more I'd give the edge to Alsop over Kuchar and probably over Neeme Jrvi (Chandos) as well: he recorded these waltzes, but split them up, using three as fillers for his Fifth Symphony CD and three for the Sixth. Chandos has since made them available on one disc with other works. On the Seventh Symphony's disc Alsop offers The Lieutenant Kije Suite and the March and Scherzo from The Love for Three Oranges. Alsop's Kije is totally convincing and so are the March and Scherzo. It's hard to pick a winner in these works since everyone and his brother and sister have recorded them, but I'll say Alsop's accounts are fine and if not the very best are certainly among them.

I have referenced Alsop's performances in the Prokofiev symphonies in several previous reviews here (review ~ review review). Her accounts consistently compare favorably with the competition. In fact, I have generally ranked her cycle among the top four, with that of Kitayenko, Litton and, on video, Gergiev (Arthaus Musik). There are other fine Prokofiev cycles too by Jrvi, Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya), Kuchar, and Weller (Decca). In the end, one must assess Alsop's Prokofiev as consistently good but very often excellent. You can find better performances of individual symphonies, as well as some of the other orchestral works, but collectively she's hard to surpass. Moreover, the additional works included here and the budget price for this six-disc set make this release a high priority for Prokofiev admirers and for lovers of 20th century orchestral music.

Robert Cummings


Contents

Disc 1 [56:55]:
Symphony No. 1, in D Major "Classical", Op. 25 (1917) [13:44]
Symphony No. 2, in D minor, Op. 40 (1925) [33:44]
Dreams, Op. 6 (Symphonic Tableau) (1910) [9:26]
rec. 2013 and 2014 at the Sala So Paulo, Brazil

Disc 2 [61:28]:
Symphony No. 3, in C minor, Op. 44 (1928) [34:27]
Scythian Suite, Op. 20 (1914-15) [20:25]
Autumnal Sketch, Op. 8 [6:35]
rec. 2014 at the Sala So Paulo, Brazil

Disc 3 [78:13]:
Symphony No. 4, in C Major, Op. 112 (1947; Second Version) [40:18]
The Prodigal Son, Op. 46 (1928) [37:55]
rec. 2013 at the Sala So Paulo, Brazil

Disc 4 [59:48]:
Symphony No. 5, Op. 100 (1945) [44:47]
Symphonic Suite "The Year 1941", Op. 90 [15:01]
rec. 2011 at the Sala So Paulo, Brazil

Disc 5 [68:21]:
Symphony No. 6, in E Flat minor, Op. 111 (1947) [38:57]
Waltz Suite, Op. 110 [29:24]
1. Since We Met (from "War and Peace") [6:18]
2. In the Palace (from "Cinderella") [5:39]
3. Mephisto Waltz (from "Lermontov") [3:27]
4. End of the Fairy Tale (from "Cinderella") [4:58]
5. New Year's Eve Ball (from "War and Peace") [5:40]
6. Happiness (from "Cinderella") [3:22]
rec. 2015 at the Sala So Paulo, Brazil

Disc 6 [55:42]:
Symphony No. 7, in C Sharp minor, Op. 131 (1953) [32:36]
March & Scherzo from The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33bis (1919; rev. 1924) [1:47 & 2:22]
Lieutenant Kij Suite, Op. 60 (1934) [18:54]
rec. 2016 at the Sala So Paulo, Brazil





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