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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No 6 in E-flat minor, Op 111 (1947) [40:44]
Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No 27 in C minor, Op 85 (1949) [35:36]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. November 2018 and May 2019, Oslo Concert Hall
LAWO LWC1215 [76:24]

Not only does this appear to be the last of the Oslo-Petrenko recordings but it must necessarily therefore be the second and last of their Prokofiev-Myaskovsky couplings. That earlier disc contrasted the former’s Fifth Symphony and Myaskovsky’s most popular work in the form, his Twenty-First.

Myaskovsky’s last symphony dates from 1949, the year before his death and hasn’t attracted a swathe of recordings. I’ve not yet heard Valeri Polyansky’s 2001 Chandos recording with the Russian State Symphony but the obvious standard bearer for this symphonic canon is Svetlanov. The differences between the two lie, to some extent, in expressive weight and in the individual and corporate sonorities of the Oslo Philharmonic now and the USSR State Symphony back in 1980. Petrenko is an astute judge of symphonic peaks and falls and reserves his greatest weight for the one real climax in a movement, or indeed a symphony. His orchestra has a transparency of sound that allows string choirs, and sections, to maintain clarity and this vests Myaskovsky’s symphony with a kind of lightness and even innocence, especially in the Adagio, that is very touching and not necessarily what one expects for those who have been versed in Svetlanov’s way with it.

The obverse is that Petrenko can sound rather self-contained and emotionally non-committal. Listen to Svetlanov’s lugubriously melancholy bassoonist and to his very personalised principal clarinet. They simply etch deeper, and darker, than Petrenko’s more emollient duo, eloquent though they are. Petrenko accelerates into the body of the first movement well, with no lurching rhythms but I miss the heart-on-sleeve and unapologetically opulent romanticism that Svetlanov reveals in the slow movement and the far greater density of string tone with which he envelops the music. Then, too, he is more biting rhythmically in the finale. Petrenko is just – only just – a little too measured here. My personal preference, clearly, is for the older recording which is one that seems to me to reflect Myaskovsky’s late idiom perfectly, but for a cooler, lighter, and symphonically cogent reading I have to admit that Petrenko remains revealing and sometimes even surprising.

In Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony matters are similar in conception and execution. One again there is a focus on textual clarity, Petrenko utilising the Oslo strings’ relative leanness and purity of sound to draw the ear from a focus on weight and onto conjunctions of instrumentation, facets of orchestration whilst always conducting with a sense of linear direction. You will not, therefore, in the Largo, experience the kind of stupefaction that I did when I heard Rostropovich conduct this work in the concert hall or the very different but in many ways equally compelling Mravinsky. In terms of overarching conception Petrenko’s reading is, to be clear, less reminiscent of Mravinsky than it is of Järvi and the Scottish National and Litton and the Bergen orchestra.

In a clean but not clinically clear acoustic the winds and percussion register well and Petrenko is always at his most convincing when the work’s architecture informs his decision making. As in the Myaskovsky he is unerringly right in building to climaxes. Whether this is enough, given the focus on a rather objectified sense of engagement, is a matter I had best leave to the listener. This is a work that can take a very broad difference in tempi and approach, as do all great works, from the indulgence of Gergiev, the tautness of Karabits in Bournemouth, the exceptional speed of Ashkenazy in the second movement in Cleveland, through to Ormandy’s finely paced reading in Philadelphia.

Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic offer, in both symphonies, clarity over mass, reserve over outpouring, integration over spotlighting, taste over brashness. As for me, I can take a little brashness in my symphonies.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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