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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Le Pas d'Acier, Op. 41

WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Michail Jurowski
CPO 999974-2
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The notes to this CPO CD tell us that conductor Jurowski was a protégée of Gennady Rozhdestvensky, having served as his assistant early in his career. Listening to these interpretations, I wouldn't have suspected such a connection. Rozhdestvensky, the earliest champion of Prokofieff and still one of the composer's greatest interpreters, favored a brash style, with generally lively tempos and an unerring sense for the composer's sardonic wit and often epic character. Jurowski, on the other hand, favors clear textures, steady, sometimes stiff tempos, and mostly a straightforward manner.

In his hands much of Le Pas d'Acier (The Step of Steel or, perhaps better, The Age of Steel) comes across with a sense for steely character or steely movements alright, but ones that often lumber (pun intended). Moreover, this 1927-28 ballet is about more than just things industrial or industrial sonorities. While it depicts the emergence of industry and change in the then-newly formed Soviet Union, it is colorful, full of Prokofieff's wit and very danceable. But Jurowski is quite grim and unsmiling throughout, and in the closing numbers, Les marteaux (Hammers) and Finale, his tempos are too slow, especially in the latter. Still, while he may not approach the score with the lively spirit of Rozhdestvensky, he presents the music with a fine dramatic sense and for its thematic and harmonic individuality; for most of the ballet, too, he is alert to Prokofieff's kaleidoscopic palette and rapid shifts in perspective.

In the end then, his reading of Le Pas d'Acier, while decent and more than passable, is not inspired or filled with that Prokofieffian spirit in the way Rozhdestvensky's is. Jurowski redeems himself, however, in the more lyrical The Prodigal Son, a ballet that appeared about a year after Le Pas d'Acier. Here, Jurowski is alert to the less brash, more tuneful side of Prokofieff's creative muse. In fact, in most of the ballet's ten numbers he is quite compelling, offering clear textures, admittedly a virtue not necessarily challenging in a work with a lot of two-part writing. Still, Prokofieff's lyricism has rarely sounded more engaging, at least in several key places. Try The Return, the ballet's crucial closing number, where Jurowski deftly captures the melodic lushness of the music, making you wish he would record the Fourth Symphony, a work Prokofieff fashioned mainly from materials in The Prodigal Son. Jurowski also incisively renders the exoticism of The Siren and the brashness of Drunkenness.

The Köln-based WDR Symphony Orchestra plays impressively in both works and the sound is excellent. In the end, this must be assessed as an attractive, if far from perfect offering from cpo.

Copyright © 2004, Robert Cummings