La Scena Musicale

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Prokofiev: The Symphonies

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / Dimitrji Kitajenko
Phoenix 136 / 137 / 138 / 139 / 140 (5 CD – 282 min 53 s)
***** $$

In praise of Sergei Prokofiev and with all due homage to Chuck Berry:

Ridin’ around in my automobile,
Box set beside me at the wheel,
Sergei P’s Number One at the turn of a mile,
My curiosity runnin’ wild.
Cruising and playing the stereo,
Discovering what we need to know.
Hail! Hail! Gürzenich,
And Dmitrij K wielding the stick.
Drive for five and I gotta say,
This is the best there is today.

Auditioning recordings while operating a moving vehicle is inherently unsafe and very bad for fuel economy. Busy reviewers routinely take such risks and invariably repeat the exercise in a suitably equipped listening room at home. Most collectors appreciate Prokofiev’s First and Fifth Symphonies. Yet as Benjamin Ivry points out in his fine booklet note, “At their best, his symphonies sound like exhaled, dramatized history, capturing and evoking a point in time,” and “A complete set of Prokofiev’s symphonies provides a satisfyingly all-encompassing look at the composer’s creativity throughout the years of his mastery.” Kitajenko and the Gürzenich have already given us an incisive Shostakovich symphony cycle of uncommon power (Capriccio SACD) and it is not surprising that they have come out on top with the Prokofiev set. Their accounts of Numbers 1, 5, 6 and 7 are within striking distance of benchmark status and the ‘orphans’ (Nos 2, 3 and both versions of No 4) receive performances that should persuade listeners of the superior quality of these neglected works. Kitajenko goes beyond issues of tempo and dynamic emphasis here. He makes his marvelously honed players recreate these challenging pieces with sparkling wit and genuine affection. At the moment, this is not only the best Prokofiev cycle on the market but also the least expensive (although Jarvi’s RSNO set from Chandos is due to appear in a bargain box at roughly the same cost as the newcomer). This is another winning entry from Phoenix Edition of Vienna.

- Stephen Habington

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery

Lyubov Petrova, Claire Ormshaw, soprano; Alexandra Durseneva, Nino Surguladze, mezzo-soprano; Viacheslav Voynarovskiy, Vsevolod Grivnov, Peter Hoare, tenor; Andrey Breus, Alan Opie, Pavel Baransky, baritone; Jonathan Veira, bass-baritone; Sergei Alexashkin, Maxim Mikhailov, bass; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski; The Glyndebourne Chorus / Thomas Blunt
Glyndebourne GFOCD 002-06 (2CD: 135 min 31 s)
***** $$$$
Voilà un petit opéra-comique tout à fait charmant composé en 1940 et, surprise, issu de la plume de Prokofiev. L'entrée en guerre de la Russie a annulé les espoirs de longévité de cette œuvre légère, basée sur une pièce de Sheridan (1751-1816). Betrothal in a Monastery raconte l’histoire de la fille d’un riche aristocrate qui cherche à se soustraire à un mariage forcé. La musique enjouée, souriante, pétillante, rappelle la Symphonie classique. Les solistes sont presque tous russes, d'où le parfait naturel des inflexions vocales et musicales. À une solide distribution s’ajoute la direction précise et nerveuse de Vladimir Jurowski, qui obtient de ses Londoniens une palette d’émotions et de couleurs très variée. Le luxueux livret présente les textes en français, anglais, allemand et russe (cyrillique malheureusement : aucune chance, donc, de suivre les dialogues originaux à moins de savoir déchiffrer cet alphabet particulier), illustrés de quelques belles photos de la production 2006 du Glyndebourne Opera.
- Frédéric Cardin

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Prokofiev et Ravel : Concertos pour piano

Yundi Li, piano; Berlin Philharmoniker/Seiji Ozawa
Deutsche Grammophon 4776593 (51 min 4 s)
***** $$$

Selon maestro Ozawa, l'art pianistique du jeune prodige chinois, Yundi Li, est un habile mélange de poésie et de technique. L'écoute du présent CD confirme ses dires. On pourrait même ajouter que le Prokofiev, par ses cadences difficiles et sa froideur même, souligne plus particulièrement la dimension technique irréprochable du pianiste, alors que le Ravel (surtout l'élégiaque adagio) fait ressortir davantage le côté poétique de son jeu. Mais Li n'est pas seul avec son clavier : il bénéficie du soutien exceptionnel d'un grand chef à la tête de l'un des meilleurs orchestres au monde, ce qui donne deux interprétations à ranger dans les sommets discographiques. Cette version du deuxième concerto de Prokofiev – œuvre peu enregistrée – se compare aisément à celle de Kun Woo Pak (Naxos 8.550566), autre pianiste qui marie étroitement l'émotion à la virtuosité. Quant à la version du Concerto en sol de Ravel, elle se rapproche de la référence absolue Argerich-Abbado sur Deutsche Grammophon.

-Pierre Demers

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Prokofiev Orchestral Works

Symphony No. 5/Ode to the End of the War
Russian National Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, dir.

Pentatone Classics
PTC 5186 083 (57 m 7 s)
***** $$$$

Once again, chalk one up for the young guns: the new generation of conductors is truly yielding some remarkable talents. Russian Vladimir Jurowski, 35, has become a household name in Britain, where he holds directorships with the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Opera, in addition to his work with noted period instrument ensemble, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Even with all this activity in the UK, he still finds time to return home and visit the Russian National Orchestra in his capacity as Principal Guest Conductor and record treasures of the repertoire. The latest? Prokofiev's immortal Symphony No. 5. Our expectations of such a recording should be high, since the RNO has proven itself over recent years as an ensemble worthy of significant international attention and, after all, one expects the national orchestra to be at the top of its game to play the nation's gems. Somehow romantic yet economical, grandiose yet with the intimate ambience of chamber music, Jurowski and the RNO sculpt a remarkable interpretation of this epic warhorse. Jurowski stays away from any sense of the mechanical rigidity so often heard in other versions, while razor-sharp technique and disciplined ensemble playing through all sections of the orchestra make Jurowski's tempo fluctuations seem organic and convincing. What is perhaps most striking about the recording of this symphony, however, is the crystal-clear view it provides of Prokofiev's genius when it comes to orchestration. This is critical, as many other recordings of the Fifth neglect textures and orchestral colours rarely heard outside the composer's oeuvre: full marks to both the musicians and the recording team at PentaTone. A fresh and insightful approach to a standard, this recording is highly recommended for veterans and newcomers alike. The bonus track is Ode to the End of the War, a seldom-heard 1945 work written for a truly bizarre array of instruments (wind orchestra with 8 harps, 4 pianos, percussion, and 8 double basses). While the title and era of composition might lead one to see it as nothing more than a Soviet composer's duty to appease Stalin and the party, it is truly a great piece, no doubt neglected simply due to its unconventional ensemble roster.

-Graham Lord

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