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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Symphony #5

  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, Op. 100 (1945)
  • "The Year 1941" (Symphonic Suite), Op. 90
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.553056 DDD 57:07
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War, horrible though it surely is, has had the peculiarly positive side effect of inspiring the world's artists to produce some of their finest creations. Such was the case during World War II with the Soviet Union's leading composer, Serge Prokofieff, in the two works featured on this disc. The Fifth Symphony, composed in the summer of 1944 as a "hymn to the human spirit," is one of Prokofieff's most popular compositions, but The Year 1941, written to depict the German invasion of Russia and to express the composer's subsequent hopes for peace, is virtually unknown, this being, as far as I can determine, its first recording. Yet when you hear this fifteen-minute three movement piece you'll be at a loss to explain its neglect. Granted, it isn't on the same artistic level as the epic Fifth, but it does have its share of compelling music: the colorfully scored, militaristic opening of the first section, In The Struggle; the disarming, lyrical simplicity of the flute theme of In The Night; and the unforgettable closing theme of the Finale, For The Brotherhood of Man. You could become musically drunk on this ending, in fact, so positively euphoric are its effects on the spirit in its ecstatically beautiful melody and sanguine orchestration.

Theodore Kuchar has rapidly emerged as one of the top Prokofieff conductors on the scene today. In fact, on the basis of his two-disc compilation of several of the composer's ballet suites (also on Naxos) and his on-going symphony cycle, of which this disc is the third release, I would rank him with Järvi and Rozhdestvensky, ahead of such stalwarts as Ozawa and Previn. Kuchar makes you re-think the Prokofieff Fifth. His is a muscular approach that, while pointing up the acid and wit in the Scherzo and Finale, never skirts the tender elements in first half of the third movement or the optimism and hushed anxiety in the alternate theme of the first. The depth he finds in the epic defiance of the opening movement and in the third's starkly tragic middle section allow you to see the kaleidoscopic nature and emotional range of this work. From the robust tuba underpinnings in the first movement coda to the colorfully hectoring reeds in the Scherzo to the machine-like instrumental effects in the Finale's close, Kuchar captures the full measure of the score, imparting an urgency to his epic vision rarely heard in other recordings. And his Kiev-based orchestra respond to his baton with total commitment, if not with the last ounce of precision, their brass playing with such relish as to convincingly surpass their highly touted Berlin counterparts in the so-so Karajan/DG effort. Surely this rendition of the Fifth is one of the finest ever recorded, at least equaling those of the quite different previous standard-bearers: Levi/Telarc, Weller/London, Dutoit/London and Bernstein/Sony (I & II). And I'll surmise that if a half-dozen recordings of 1941 suddenly appear, Kuchar's spirited reading, with its glistening colors and all-conquering denouement, would still be top drawer amidst the competition.

This recording's only negative aspect – and it's a minor one – is the occasionally shrill sonics, most noticeable in loud flute passages. The sound is otherwise quite fine, however. Do yourself a favor and plunk down the paltry six or seven dollars asking price for this splendid CD.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Cummings