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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No 5 in B-flat Op 100 (1944) [39:43]
Symphony No 6 in E-flat minor Op 111 (1947) [37:08]
USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. 1958, Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow (No 5); 1949, Carnegie Hall, New York (No 6)
PRISTINE PASC161 [78:51]

This will serve as indispensable testimony when weighing up Prokofiev’s later years and the living history of early performances of these two symphonies from those years. Naturally it’s Prokofiev in mono, but the disc allows us to hear the Sixth from a time while the composer was still alive and a Fifth from just five years after his death. The latter derives from a Melodiya LP and the Sixth from the work’s first US broadcast.

The Fifth has a few rough passages when heard at close quarters but they are few. Overall, this is a recording in sombre raiment but a performance coloured with dour confidence. As far as I can see this is Stokowski’s only work with Melodiya: a rara avis indeed. It was inscribed during Stokowski's 1958 Russian tour; his only studio recording of any symphony by Prokofiev.

As a reading and audio document it’s not excessively flamboyant. The conductor finds tenderness at 9:05 in the first movement but it’s not all soft-focus sentimentality. Stokowski underlines a moment of gritty determination at 10:00. The start of the second movement looks forward in studio session terms to the start of Rozhdestvensky’s wonderful Romeo and Juliet with the Symphonic Orchestra of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre. That was in 1959 and the complete ballet in that reading and in unmissable sound is on Pristine’s PASC424. At 5:32 there’s the delightfully oompah-ed brass from which the conductor snatches some almost romantic moments. Notable also is the tortured passion in the third movement with a certain tensile strain in the leisurely paid-out high strings. In the finale Stokowski proves himself the master of the moment with coruscating string pirouettes. They are heard in tumbling motion, close-up and shedding clouds of sparks.

As a work the Sixth Symphony has more grit and more of an epic sense than the Fifth. While it lacks the popular whistleable qualities of the Seventh, this Sixth, which was recorded at Carnegie Hall on 4 December 1949 with New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, is blest with one of the great openings of any Symphony even if this superb gesture is not consistently sustained. Still, the symphony has about it a gawky romance which transcend the circus moments (which we also hear in Shostakovich’s symphonies 6 and 9). There are some masterful paragraphs including a breathtaking tenderness in I (e.g. at 3:40) and the vibrant image of a bugle seemingly blown against the winds of war in an icefield floe. We are aware of an audience (a cough at 9:29) that is otherwise quiet apart from the ambient noise of the presence of people. In II the long-breathed lines make their impact even if the music tells us that they are never quite liberated. There is applause at the end and some gentle electrical crackling in the last movement. The radio announcer speaks of this being the work’s first broadcast in USA. It was also its fourth performance in that country.

There are, we are told, no other recordings of Stokowski conducting the Sixth. This was also his final performance of the work. It is taken from a reel-to-reel tape copy of original acetates from the collection of none other than Edward Johnson.

This disc strikes a nice balance of listening pleasure, fantasy and historical significance. There’s also a prized reassurance that we are hearing some very rare Stokowskiana.

Rob Barnett

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