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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1945-47) [37:28]
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1952) [30:01]
The Cleveland Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. May 1993, Severance Hall, Cleveland, USA
Presto CD
DECCA 443 325-2 [67:47]

These performances, which are now being reissued thanks to Presto Music, for some reason never received the attention they deserve, falling under the radar. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s perceptive interpretations and the superb playing of the Cleveland Orchestra move these recordings to the top echelon of the competition for the two symphonies.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6, arguably the composer’s greatest work in the genre, has become almost as popular in the concert hall as the Fifth. It has received its share of fine recordings, one of the most recent which I reviewed here by Pietari Inkinen and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie on SWR (review). While I found much in that account to like, I did not prefer it to several others. For Ashkenazy my comparisons were the National Symphony of Washington/Slatkin (RCA), London Symphony/Gergiev (Philips), and Inkinen. From the off Ashkenazy has the advantage of the Cleveland Orchestra. Their playing is absolutely stupendous in all departments and the sound has great depth and quite a dynamic range, though it is necessary to crank up the volume a bit in comparison with the others to gain the full effect. Highlights in the first movement are the brass (especially the horns and trumpets), vivid percussion (including the woodblock and bass drum), and the solo bassoon. Slatkin is nearly as good, though his strings do not sound as full as Ashkenazy’s; Gergiev is also terrific, but let down a bit by the dry and congested Barbican recording; and Inkinen is not quite at the same level of execution and with tempos not as steady.

The biggest difference, though, in these four accounts concerns the timing of the Largo second movement. Slatkin takes nearly 17 minutes and is very heavy; Gergiev accomplishes this in a little over 14; while Inkinen manages it in 15. Ashkenazy astoundingly completes this movement in 12:04! Granted it is marked largo and the slower tempo of the others would seem more appropriate to this designation. However, I have sometimes found the second movement to drag and have lost patience with it. Not so with Ashkenazy, who contributes a lean and powerful statement with tremendous trombones and percussion. It really works for me and does not seem a minute too hasty.

The finale is also problematic in how the conductor treats it, either as a “happy ending” or something darker. Three of these conductors take a very fleet initial tempo, where the strings’ articulation can suffer at that speed. That it doesn’t in any of them is testament to the virtuosity of the respective orchestras. Inkinen’s slightly slower tempo does not guarantee greater clarity and is more or less as convincing as the others. I recall Eugene Ormandy’s second Philadelphia account—the one in stereo—where the slower tempo really told. However, the conclusion of the movement is where the tempo actually makes a difference. Some conductors, including Ormandy, deliver an upbeat ending. None of the four in my comparisons are of that persuasion, but the key is to make the last four notes clear enough to hear their articulation while retaining a deliberate speed by transforming the conclusion into a juggernaut. Slatkin and Gergiev are more successful than Inkinen, whose last notes are smudged. Ashkenazy is light and breezy in the beginning of the movement, but is also very moving and poignant in the slow section before ending the work with power and clarity. Particularly outstanding in this finale are the Clevelanders’ horn and bassoon playing. This account will likely be my first port of call for the symphony, though the others I have mentioned have much to recommend them, too. Ashkenazy’s Seventh is no less fine.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 used to be called his “problem child,” because he composed it during the last year of Stalin’s life (and his own, too) in a simpler, more melodic style. It is reminiscent of the composer’s ballets. Ashkenazy, who successfully recorded Cinderella, excels here. I reviewed Marin Alsop’s performance with the São Paulo Symphony (Naxos) and in general preferred it to Gergiev’s largely due to the sound on the latter’s recording (review). I did have a few reservations about Alsop’s, mainly her tempo variations in the second movement with her headlong rush to the end. I now appreciate Gergiev’s London Symphony for their considerable virtues, having become more used to the Barbican acoustic. Nonetheless, Ashkenazy and Cleveland top both of them for sheer virtuosity and warmth. All three thankfully prefer the original ending of the symphony, rather than the “throwaway” one that Prokofiev later tacked on to appease the cultural ideologists.

Ashkenazy chooses a moderate tempo for the first movement and his wonderful strings suit the lyricism of the music, but he does not shortchange the whimsy either. The second movement is utterly delightful, as the conductor evokes the spirit of ballet with terrific woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The playing of the trombones and timpani is especially noteworthy. The ending of the movement is exciting with an accelerated, but not rushed, tempo. Ashkenazy then keeps the tempo flowing in the Andante espressivo slow movement, displaying affection and warmth. The finale, as it starts, is very fast, quite exhilarating, with orchestral virtuosity on display. As the orchestra grinds to a halt—reminding me of a locomotive slowing down—and the second subject of the first movement reappears, the power of the full orchestra is palpable. When the tempo quickens, one can appreciate the harp glissandos before the symphony concludes quietly. Some recordings also include the final bars of the revised ending, for example Alsop’s, but Ashkenazy simply retains Prokofiev’s original thoughts and nothing more.

These two Prokofiev symphonies make excellent disc mates and as such this disc is self-recommending in absolutely first-rate performances and recording. Listeners owe a debt of gratitude to Presto for making this indispensable CD available.

Leslie Wright

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