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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major, Op 100 (1944)
Philharmonia Orchestra /Santtu-Matias Rouvali
rec. live Royal Festival Hall, London, 9 Feb 2020.
Reviewed as downloaded with pdf booklet from
NB Special price for Hyperion download, but other dealers have CD and download at normal full price.

Having made a striking impression last year with the first two Sibelius Symphonies recorded with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for Linn Records - Recommended review - review - Rouvali’s recording of Prokofiev is very much a follow-up calling card as he takes up the post of Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia in London this coming September. His previous recent recording for the orchestra’s own label of excerpts from Swan Lake was something of a mixed blessing in which the conductor’s personal selection of music seemed to challenge both orchestra and listener in terms of sustained dramatic engagement and cohesion - review.

Prokofiev pertinently incorporated some of the music not used in his ballets Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella in the Fifth Symphony. So how does the Finnish conductor respond to symphonic music by the Russian composer, who most notably inherited Tchaikovsky’s dance mantle? In a word – balletically. This works well enough for much of the busier music of the second movement and Finale, particularly the characteristic motor rhythm sequences as well as the slow waltz-processional framework of the third movement Adagio. However, the composer’s stated conception of the work, composed towards the end of WW2, 16 years after his previous symphony, is “a symphony to the greatness of the human spirit, a song of praise for free and happy mankind that may be said to conclude an entire creative period”. Having returned to Russia in 1932 at a particularly precarious time after spending 14 years trying to forge a career in the USA, the traumas of the Stalin era and what the Soviets called The Great War are an inescapable backdrop to the epic scale and stylistic consolidation of what the composer knew to be a landmark work.

Although not as covert or ambiguous as the symphonies of Shostakovich, the human spirit explored in Prokofiev’s Fifth is also patently not all happiness and light. The slippery convolutions brought to bear on the main theme of the first movement converge at its terrifying climax to generate the birth of a monster. The slow muted trumpet-led accelerando at the heart of the second movement unleashes a stalking chase sequence akin to Little Red-Riding-Hood and The Wolf that ends even more fearsomely than Rachmaninov’s similar depiction in his Etude-Tableau, Op 39, No 6. No amount of soaring strings can disguise the grief-laden lament capped by the screaming outrage of the third movement’s battlefield climax and its desolate aftermath. Nor does the work end with a V for Victory flag-wave. Ushered in by a pallid restatement of the first movement’s main theme on divided celli and basses, the high spirits of the finale are gradually subsumed by shrieking urban sirens and an out-of-control robotic industrial overdrive more than eligible as a soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent movie Metropolis.

The balletic focus that Rouvali brings to the symphony generates considerable effect, but ultimately lacks sufficient substance – plenty of sappily orchestrated branches with secure thematic trunking, but much of the inspirational root network of subtext remains untapped below ground. The dry acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall brings clarity and balance, but remains as unyielding as ever in its flatlining aural perspective that compromises ambient warmth and spatial depth.

Hyperion offers a special price for the download in compensation for the short playing time, but others are charging full price.  There are several alternative versions that probe deeper to reveal the inner clockwork that makes this extraordinarily powerful and multi-faceted symphony tick. Simon Rattle with the CBSO (Warner Encore 3886752, with Scythian Suite, budget-price download, or 9072312, budget-price twofer download with Symphony No 7, Symphony-Concerto and Cinderella Suite – review) also finds much dance music in the work, but he misses none of the underlying tension of menace, terror and human tragedy ever-ready to extinguish the light. The combative rawness of Rozhdestvensky live with the Leningrad PO at the Proms in 1971 (Formerly on BBC Legends) or in the studio back in the mid-1960s with the Moscow Radio SO (Formerly on Melodiya – review. 150 being asked for this set on Amazon UK and $600 on Amazon US) is uncompromising and specifically Russian in kicking the collective solar plexus. Karajan with the BPO (DG Originals 463132, with Stravinsky Rite of Spring review review – or DG Galleria 4372532, with Symphony No 1, both mid-price CD or budget download) may occasionally veer more towards Hollywood than Eisenstein, but nevertheless packs a devastating emotional punch, much in the same convincing manner as his first recording of Shostakovich 10.

Lastly, an unexpected blinder from Vernon Handley and the RPO in 1987 (Warner). Rigorously structured with a sinewy directness worthy of a Haydn symphony, Handley shapes the trajectory of the whole work with consistently intuitive and compelling insight. The superb recording quality achieved by Andrew Keener and Mike Clements in St. Augustine’s, Kilburn readily enhances this journey to the heart of darkness at every twist and turn. Sadly and unaccountably, that recording disappeared in all formats far too soon. The other named versions which remain available would be preferable to the new Signum recording.

Ian Julier

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