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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Symphonies #1 & 2

  • Symphony #1 in D Major "Classical", Op. 25 (1917)
  • Symphony #2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1925)
  • "Dreams" Op. 6 (Symphonic Tableau)
  • Autumnal Sketch, Op. 8
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.553053 DDD 72:58
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On rare occasions this reviewer hears a recording whose performance and sonic properties are of such an extraordinary quality as to leave him astonished, drained, in a state mere words cannot describe. This Naxos disc brought on such an occasion, owing mainly to the utterly riveting performance of that most intractable but compelling of Prokofieff Symphonies, the "iron and steel" Second, from 1924-25.

Conductor Kuchar's reading is unrelentingly savage and grim throughout the titanic, frantic first movement. And his interpretation of the theme-and-variations second movement catches the wistfulness, the mischief, and once again the savagery in proper measure. His orchestra plays as if possessed of a drive, a frenzy, a commitment to this brazen work I've never encountered before. This is truly a thrilling performance of thrilling music that must be heard to be believed! The sixth variation in the second movement (track 14), for example, is rendered with such deliciously wanton power and virtuosic intensity that you're apt to wonder if your speakers will survive the excitement and aural assault: violently insistent horns, tubas and brass, underpinned by thundering, angry drums, bellow a boisterous motif from the first movement as if preparing for musical Armageddon; then the acid-drenched strings dig into the otherworldly variation with utterly convincing playing as the passage builds to the inexorable spasmodic explosion of the stomping, all-decimating tutti march. The hallucinatory fourth variation (track 12) is rendered with a hypnotic fervor that captures the full measure of mystery and menace. But then every note in this two-movement, 37-minute symphony is played with the last ounce of commitment.

There have been twelve recordings of this work, and I possess nine of them. The three I don't have (Bruck, Kitayenko, and Grin) have received some critical plaudits, but consensus has not prompted me to seek them out. This Naxos disc is by far the most compelling rendition of the Second Symphony you're likely to find for a long time to come. Järvi/Chandos, Ozawa/DG, Weller/London, and Rostropovich/Erato all have much to offer in this work, but each is a clear second to this Kuchar recording.

If this disc had only the Second Symphony on it I would still turn in an enthusiastic endorsement, but it has more, considerably more. Kuchar serves up a slow, rather aggressively modern account of the ever-popular Classical Symphony that might make you rethink this otherwise seemingly elegant piece. And he gives us two very early, very interesting works by Prokofieff, the obsessive Dreams and the Rachmaninoff-inspired Autumnal Sketch (also known simply as "Autumn"). His readings here are at least on the level of previous offerings from Järvi/Chandos and Ashkenazy/London. Ates Orga's notes are decent, and Naxos provides demonstration-caliber sonics.

If the dissonant, modernist side of Prokofieff is your cup of tea, by all means acquire this splendid disc. But even if it isn't, at least half of this issue is worth purchasing anyway, especially at Naxos' budget price. This is the best album by far in Kuchar's on-going distinguished Prokofieff survey. Highest possible recommendations!

Copyright © 1997, Robert Cummings