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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [47:18]
Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 21 in F sharp minor, Op. 51 (1940) [15:13]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko
rec. October/November 2018, Konserthus Oslo, Norway

The album is the first of two releases of symphonic works by Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, performed by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under its former chief conductor Vasily Petrenko. Prokofiev is represented by the Fifth Symphony, and Myaskovsky by the Twenty-First Symphony.

Contemporaries separated by almost ten years, the composers are linked in several ways. Both studied at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory when Glazunov was director. Myaskovsky started his music education at a later age then the younger Prokofiev, who was regarded as an enfant terrible. They studied in the same class, and developed a strong friendship. Both are regarded as prolific, and count amongst the most distinctive composers of the first half of the twentieth century. They lived in terrible times. The First World War and the revolutions of 1917 made Prokofiev emigrate to the West, first to San Francisco in 1918. Myaskovsky stayed in Russia. He survived the outrages of Russian Civil War 1917-1922 which led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. He was injured and shell-shocked while serving in the Red Army in 1917-1921.

Prokofiev spent eighteen years in the West. After four years of moving back and forth between his home in Paris and Moscow, he and his family in 1936 returned for good to what was the Soviet Union under the Stalin regime. Gone was the enfant terrible label of Prokofiev’s early years in pre-Revolutionary Russia. The reasons for his return were somewhat puzzling, although he is thought to have been homesick. He had been promised benefits and profitable commissions, but it was still a decision fraught with danger. He returned to Soviet Union when the Great Terror (also known as the Great Purges) was in full swing, with arrests, show trials, expulsion to forced-labour camps or executions. In the period 1936-1938, it is estimated that millions of Russians from all walks of life were either transported to the dreaded Siberian forced-labour camps, tortured or executed. For the intelligentsia, including composers, the purge involved a crackdown on artistic dissension from the absolute doctrine of Soviet Realism.

Fourteen years separate Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, completed in the summer of 1944, from his Fourth Symphony in its original version. The Second World War was at its most ferocious as Prokofiev was writing the score, D-Day commenced in June, and soon Russian and Allied troops were advancing towards Berlin. At the premiere in January 1945 at Moscow Conservatory, the concert was interrupted by a statement made on stage that the Red Army had crossed the important Vistula River, and would soon march victorious into Nazi Germany. An unqualified success, the valiant Fifth Symphony restored Prokofiev’s international standing and re-established his reputation with the Soviet authorities – but not for long. In 1948, along with several other composers, he was subject to Soviet denouncement and charged with ‘formalism’ and ‘bourgeois decadence’.

Vasily Petrenko presides over a convincing performance by his Oslo players. It displays extremes that feel natural without overstressing the dynamics at the expense of discipline. Marked Andante, the first movement has considerable restlessness and shifts of mood ranging from near-pastoral yearnings to the uneasily thorny. An undertow of foreboding is never far away. Mocking, mischievous and whip-sharp, the Scherzo movement develops a march-like pounding accompaniment that builds until it falls off the edge. An intriguing third movement, the Adagio, has dense writing which seems to meander, taking on an anguished and unsettling, rather funereal feel. A stark contrast to the Adagio is the upbeat and colourful Finale: Allegro giocoso. Its spurts of exuberance with Petrenko’s approach ensure there are glimpses of an untroubled world. It bowls along, gathering speed in an impulsive sprint to the finish, only to conclude suddenly.

Of the recordings of the Fifth Symphony that I know, my preference is for the engrossing 2014 Berlin account by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Tugan Sokhiev on Sony (review). Petrenko and his players should be praised for an impressively conceived account that can join the top rank of recommended recordings.

Whilst Prokofiev pursued an international career as a concert pianist, Myaskovsky – from his demobilisation in 1921 until his death – became accustomed to a routine as professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory. His students include Aram Khachaturian, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Rodion Shchedrin and Boris Tchaikovsky. He was a prolific composer, producing a remarkable total of twenty-seven symphonies spanning some forty years, thirteen string quartets and nine piano sonatas. He has been hailed as ‘the first great Soviet symphonist’ and ‘the musical conscience of Moscow’.

Conductor Evgeny Svetlanov, a champion of Myaskovsky’s, music recorded the complete orchestral music on Olympia, now issued on Warner Classics. Svetlanov described Myaskovsky as ‘the founder of Soviet symphonism, the creator of the Soviet school of composition, the composer whose work has become the bridge between Russian classics and Soviet music’. Out of step with the progressivists, Myaskovsky’s music, although varied in form and personality, is typically written in an individualistic idiom, sufficiently conformist to satisfy the policies of socialist realism in Soviet culture. Even the publicly compliant Myaskovsky was not shielded from Soviet denouncement. In 1948, he was accused of ‘formalism’ and ‘bourgeois decadence’. Most of his works were in effect hidden behind the Iron Curtain for many years, so his renown has never achieved the same level of popular acclaim as Prokofiev. It might have been different for Myaskovsky today, had he written stage works such ballets and opera.

The Twenty-First Symphony in F-sharp minor, subtitled Symphony-Fantasy, is Myaskovsky’s best known and most recorded symphonic work. Written in 1940, it was a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, a fact that was not commonly known at the time. However, it was the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Aleksandr Gauk who introduced the symphony to great acclaim in November the same year. Constructed in a single movement, and arranged in a sonata form, this is a beautifully balanced score that takes here fifteen minutes to perform. One senses that with these portrayals in music Myaskovsky is contrasting his official public face of Socialist Realism as required by the Soviet authorities with his tormented and tragic private thoughts.

Introducing the Twenty-First Symphony is a short but haunting melody by a single clarinet. Heightened by strings, the predominant mood is one of introspection imbued with gracious melancholy. In truth, the atmosphere reminds me of Shostakovich. Variegated through the slow contemplative writing are passages of a breezy upbeat character, evoking Shostakovich again. It is hard to take this buoyant music at face value. Petrenko creates an undertow of a curious feeling of insincerity, as if giving the impression of optimism yet privately suffering despondency. In the manner of an epilogue, the closing section of the score returns to a melancholy existence which feels like a terrible burden with portents of tragedy. I have the recording of the Twenty-First Symphony conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov with the Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation as part of the Warner Classics Box (16 CDs) of the Myaskovsky complete symphonies and orchestral works (review) and reissued, minus a few short orchestral pieces, recently on Alto (review). There is little to help choose between the Svetlanov recording from the early 1990s, which is three minutes slower yet remains impressively engaging, and Petrenko’s compelling account with its improved sound.
Vasily Petrenko was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Like Myaskovsky and Prokofiev, he studied at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He is clearly in his element conducting symphonic music from his home country. The Oslo Philharmonic produces with a warm, rich sound, particularly evident on the strings. Petrenko’s is commendably adept at generating substantial tension and unwavering rhythmic energy. There is conspicuous focus and satisfying clarity of texture in these performances of exemplary integrity.

The performers benefit from satisfying sound quality in a studio recording. Music writer Philip Borg-Wheeler has provided a first-class booklet essay. In short, these are outstanding performances. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko can be justly proud of this Prokofiev and Myaskovsky recording.

Michael Cookson

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