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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphonies 1–7
Scythian Suite
Lieutenant Kije Suite
The Love for Three Oranges Symphonic Suite
Romeo and Juliet: Suites 1, 2 & 3
Andrei Bondarenko (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2005-15
BIS BIS-2594 SACD [5 discs: 388:57]

I have followed Andrew Litton's cycle of Sergei Prokofiev's symphonies from the first issue in 2012 which contained the Sixth as well as suites from Lieutenant Kije and The Love for Three Oranges. In 2020 I reviewed the last release, which contained Symphonies 1, 2 and 3. I have also referenced performances from this set in other reviews here (review ~ review). The one thing that I missed on its first release is Litton's SACD of the three suites from Romeo and Juliet.

Since I already reviewed the first three symphonies, I'll just briefly summarize their performances now, though you may want to click the link above to read my full review. Litton delivers an imaginatively phrased Classical Symphony, offering tempos that are moderate even in the outer movements, which are often rushed by other conductors. Overall, Litton and the Bergen players brilliantly point up the wit, elegance and joy of this great work, turning out one of its finest performances on record.

What has served as an encumbrance to Prokofiev's Second Symphony is that it remains difficult listening for some people. Litton's effort here, however, may be the recording for those who find the work problematic. He clarifies the competing lines present in so many passages in the first movement, and also finds the right balance between energy and muscularity, two crucial elements in this frenetic opening panel. Litton's dynamics and consistent manner of balancing the various instrumental choirs allows you to hear the music clearly and thus grasp the sonata allegro form Prokofiev uses. The whole movement is convincing, not least because the Bergen players perform with accuracy and spirit. Litton finds the right tempo, dynamics and instrumental balances in the second and final movement, which consists of a theme and six variations. Like the Classical Symphony, this Second can stand with the best.

As is well known now Prokofiev's masterly Third Symphony is based on his otherworldly opera The Fiery Angel, itself a masterpiece. Litton phrases the two rather tortured lyrical themes in the first movement most effectively: they brim with passion and tension, and you notice so much meaningful orchestral detail here and throughout the symphony that is often buried in other recordings. The other three movements are just as effective, making this performance one of the finest of this symphony on disc. All three of these symphonies feature vivid, state of the art sound reproduction.

Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony is based on his ballet The Prodigal Son (1928-29). The early version (1929-30) of this symphony sounds closer in spirit to that work than the revised Fourth Symphony from 1947, which has a more epic and symphonic character. I believe the 1947 Fourth is the better of the two versions and thankfully Litton chooses it here. Again, he clarifies textures in the symphony's scoring so that you hear so many things you often don't notice in other performances. He employs judicious and rather moderate tempos, subtle use of rubato (try the first movement flute theme beginning at 4:18 to hear an example), and always seems to have an innate sense to find the proper dynamics. Both climaxes in the first movement development section are brought off brilliantly, as the modest and chipper flute theme now appears as an epic and triumphant statement, and then the work's opening theme turns intense and defiant before finally collapsing.

The second movement features one Prokofiev's most appealing lyrical themes, and Litton and his Bergen players deliver it with great sensitivity as it evolves through various mood changes, finally reaching a triumphant and utterly joyous ending. (In the ballet this theme represents the prodigal son's return.) The third movement Scherzo comes off with the right doses of wit and mischief (they're often the same thing here) and once again unveils much instrumental detail.

The finale features more menace from the cellos and double-basses in the early going than you hear in almost all other recordings. Only the classic Ormandy/Philadelphia (Columbia) effort from 1960 sounds similar here. Litton must have been familiar with that recording because, like Ormandy, he brings back the wood block at the end, something not in the score. At any rate, this account of the finale is as good as Ormandy's and of course has superior sound. The buildup that launches the coda and leads thrillingly to the climax is especially effective: you can listen to almost any other performance and it will fall short of Litton's effort here. As suggested, the sound reproduction is once again superb. An excellent Fourth!

The Fourth is coupled with the Seventh and Litton's way with this score challenges the best versions. His first movement tempo is quite expansive, which is all to the good because faster tempos by Rozhdestvensky, Järvi, Kuchar and others generally don't work as well. Litton fully understands this symphony and he captures the soul of the first movement (Moderato): the melancholy main theme is phrased straightforwardly but sensitively, the strings displaying a pleasant fullness of sound. The beautiful F major alternate theme soars lushly to the heavens here and the ensuing toy-like chimes melody on woodwinds and glockenspiel is delivered convincingly. Nothing in this movement is ever less than fully satisfying.

The Allegretto second movement features a lively but emotionally ambivalent waltz, chipper one moment but somber the next. Litton phrases it with his usual sensitivity, capturing the slightest mood swing and once again revealing secondary lines in the scoring you won't notice in certain other recordings. The whole movement is wonderfully played, especially the rollicking coda. The brief lyrical third movement comes across most effectively here and the finale is played about as well as I have ever heard it. From the vivacious trill on strings at the opening, it takes the listener through a playful fantasy world and then onto a gloriously beautiful but sad climax when the first movement alternate theme returns. What follows might be Prokofiev signing off as the glockenspiel and xylophone, playing the first movement chimes theme, slow the pace of their beat and then stop, as if Prokofiev's beating heart has stopped. All this is so well conceived and played. Litton goes on to offer the alternate ending, not just playing its half minute length, but preceding it with the entirety of the original finale. Great sound again.

The Fifth Symphony is another success, but the first movement coda lacks a bit of weight and grandeur, as Litton holds back on percussion a bit. His slower pacing throughout the movement is just fine though and the Bergen players deliver an exceptional performance throughout. The second movement Scherzo is animated, rhythmically vibrant and well accented. The outer sections are filled with drive and tension while the colorful Trio is carefree though very lively and exuding joy. The exciting buildup in which the main theme gradually gathers momentum as it leads back to Allegro marcato is subtly phrased and very well executed. The coda is brilliantly performed, as it races along with juggernaut momentum to the end.

The third movement's rather ethereal main theme is phrased nicely and the dark middle section is most imposing with a grand and crushing climax. The finale brims with energy as the main theme on clarinet revels joyously in celebration, and the strings, playing those rapid-fire notes that follow, dig into them with vigor and spirit. Again, this calls to mind how Ormandy interpreted this opening in his 1958 recording with his Philadelphia Orchestra. Litton and his Bergen players go on to deliver an excellent performance of this movement, crowning it thrillingly with a wild and frenetic coda.

The Scythian Suite is coupled with the Fifth and Litton and the Bergen players turn in one of the finest accounts of this piece ever recorded. The first movement, The Adoration of Veles and Ala, is full of atmosphere—savage and brutal in the first half and then weirdly hypnotic and sinister in the latter portion. The ensuing movement, The Enemy God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness, is played as well as I've ever heard it: Litton doesn't rush the music as some conductors do and thus is able to allow you to hear so much detail from the brass, xylophone and strings. The other two movements are also very effective and the sound reproduction is superb. This recording is now my first choice in the Scythian Suite.

The Sixth Symphony is also very compelling here. The main theme and its immediate development come across with a little more weight and power in this performance than is usual. The ensuing rather dreamy second theme is played in a more restrained tempo and manner, which fits the music quite well. The development section builds from the funeral march into a powerful and furious rhythmic ebullition and then to a second climax punctuated by thudding drums. It all goes well but lacks that last ounce of power one hears in Kitayenko's account on Capriccio (or Phoenix Edition). The remainder of the movement is well shaped and played.

The following Largo's songful and tragic character emerges here most effectively: Litton conducts with a true Largo tempo, where certain other conductors don't, and once again brings out instrumental detail often buried in other recorded efforts. The mellow theme at the center of the movement is beautifully played here by the Bergen's four horn players. The reprise, featuring first the alternate theme and then the main theme, is played with sensitivity and utter commitment.

Litton effectively captures the dark ambivalence of the finale: the joy and effervescence of the main theme brim with spirit and energy, as even the “evil” stomping rhythm on piano and drums that interrupts it intermittently fits right in. When the main theme bursts into an ecstatic climax in the latter half and its grand celebration collapses Litton harnesses the dark atmosphere in the music that follows: the first movement's dreamy theme reappears in a very slow tempo and then the funeral march, altered and truncated, screams and shrieks. The catastrophe at the end comes on powerfully as the “evil” stomping rhythm crushes everything in its path. (Prokofiev later revealed this rhythmic motif symbolized evil powers.) In sum, Litton's performance of this symphony is very impressive and the BIS sound is again excellent.

The Lieutenant Kije Suite and Love for Three Oranges Suite are included on the Sixth's SACD. This Kije is the vocal version, with solos in Romance (No. 2) and Troika (No. 4), sung brilliantly by baritone Andrei Bondarenko. Without doubt this is the finest vocal rendition of Kije I've ever encountered. Moreover, even judged on instrumental terms it is one of the best Kijes as well. I can say the same about the Love for Three Oranges Suite. The humor and gruff character of The Clowns and The Magician Tchelio come through most convincingly, while the famous March is brilliantly performed. Ditto for the Scherzo. The Prince and Princess brings on a winsome sadness and The Flight is full of energy, color and delightful menace. The sound reproduction is splendid.

Before dealing with Romeo and Juliet let me compare Litton's Prokofiev symphony cycle with those of his competitors. The most convincing among them are Kitayenko (Capriccio), Alsop (Naxos) and, on video, Gergiev (Arthaus Musik). There are other very worthwhile sets from Järvi (Chandos), Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya), Kuchar (Naxos), Gergiev (Decca) and Weller (Decca). Not quite in their class are Ozawa (DG), Rostropovich (Erato), Martinon (Vox) and Kosler (Supraphon). Kitayenko is very fine straight through but his five discs contain only the symphonies, but includes the early version of No. 4. Yet, that's hardly the greatest value for the money. Alsop is quite excellent as well and offers substantial fillers, but is on six discs with less playing time than Litton's generous five discs. So, though Litton may be surpassed in the Fifth by Bernstein/NYPO (Sony), Tennstedt (Profil), Ormandy (Sony) and others, and in the Sixth by Kitayenko, his set on the whole is at least as good as those of Kitayenko and Alsop, and contains the most music. Thus unless you want video, his Prokofiev symphony cycle is the one to get. Now onto Romeo and Juliet.

Litton has arranged the three Romeo and Juliet suites so that their numbers appear in the order in which their music occurs in the ballet. Prokofiev had fashioned the three suites to have a sort of symphonic structure, irrespective of their sequence in the ballet. He composed transitions and some new music to make the score more effective in the process. Litton's rarely off target in any of the twenty selections: try Morning Dance (track 3), and notice the vivacious character of the playing, as the brass ring out without ever sounding bombastic, the strings play with both energy and elegance, and the percussion, especially the snare drum, italicize the doings with vigor and headlong drive. The strings play with an arresting subtlety and delicacy in the ensuing Juliet as a Young Girl. Litton nicely captures the sinister character in the opening of The Montagues and Capulets (tr. 6) by balancing the brass choirs to produce the right blend of sound. He takes the famous march that follows with a slower tempo than is usual but makes a fine case for his approach.

The Arrival of the Guests (tr. 9) has all the colorful celebratory character needed to make the music effective, and the ensuing Masks has rarely ever sounded more catchy, more infectious in its rhythms and playfulness. The love music, as heard in Balcony Scene (tr. 11) and Romeo and Juliet Part (tr. 16) is milked for all its beauty and passion. The strings play with such commitment and typically have a silken warmth when they perform Prokofiev's main love theme. Dance (tr. 13), Friar Laurence (tr. 14) and Dance of the Girls with Lillies (tr. 18) are also among the more convincingly played numbers. Death of Tybalt (tr. 15) is superbly performed, with strings scampering wildly in the opening and brass in the last half solemnly proclaiming their funereal theme in dramatic fashion. The most heart wrenching music here is Romeo at Juliet's Tomb (tr. 19), where unspeakable tragedy arrives but in such beautiful music: the climactic moment comes amid great tension as the love theme returns in a bleak mist and seems briefly to offer hope before the death theme crushes it. Litton and his Bergen players deliver this music with such passion and feeling, and follow up with a beautiful account of the Death of Juliet. Once again the BIS engineers have achieved excellent sound reproduction.

While there are plenty of recordings of the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet, as well as of excerpts from the ballet and of Suites 1 and 2, I know of only one other recording offering all three suites, that by Neeme Järvi on Chandos. Fine though it is, I would give a decisive edge to Litton. So, there you have it—this adds yet another strong asset to this superb set of Prokofiev's symphonies. Highly recommended!

Robert Cummings
Disc 1 [86:33]:
Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, "Classical" [13:58]
Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 40 [36:14]
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 44 [35:19]
Disc 2 [81:58]:
Symphony No. 4, Op. 112 (revised 1947 version) [38:49]
Symphony No. 7 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131 [32:57]
Disc 3 [67:00]:
Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 100 [45:21]
Ala i Lolli Suite, Op. 20, "Skifskaya syuita" (Scythian Suite) [20:49]
Disc 4 [79:10]:
Symphony No. 6 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 111 [42:18]
Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60 [19:40]
The Love for Three Oranges Suite, Op. 33bis [16:03]
Disc 5 [74:16]:
Romeo and Juliet: Suites 1 (Op. 64bis), 2 (Op. 64ter) & 3 (Op. 101) (Performed in the order the music appears in the ballet)
Suite No. 3, I. Romeo at the Fountain [1:44]
Suite No. 1, II Scene [1:34]
Suite No. 3, II. Morning Dance [2:21]
Suite No. 2, II. The Young Juliet [3:43]
Suite No. 3, IV. The Nurse [2:09]
Suite No. 2, I. Montagues and Capulets [4:26]
Suite No. 3, III. Juliet [4:11]
Suite No. 1, III. Madrigal [3:43]
IV. Minuet [3:01]
V. Masks [2:08]
VI. Romeo and Juliet Balcony Scene [7:29]
I. Folk Dance [4:34]
Suite No. 2, IV. Dance [1:57]
III. Friar Laurence [2:24]
Suite No. 1, VII. Death of Tybalt [4:44]
Suite No. 2, V. Romeo at Juliet's before Parting [7:11]
Suite No. 3, V. Aubade [2:38]
Suite No. 2, VI. Dance of the Antilles Girls [2:07]
VII. Romeo at the Grave of Juliet [5:41]
Suite No. 3, VI. The Death of Juliet [3:39]
rec. at Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway: Symphonies nos. 1 and 7 May, 2015; Nos. 2 and 3 August/September, 2015; Nos. 4 and 5 January, 2014; No. 6, Lt. Kije and Love for Three Oranges Suites January, 2012; Romeo and Juliet Suites June, 2005.

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