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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Complete Symphonies, Volume 3

  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, Op. 100
  • Symphony #4 in C Major, Op. 47 (original version)
  • Dreams, Op. 5
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
Onyx 4147 77:28
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This is the third volume in Kyrill Karabits' survey of the complete symphonies of Prokofiev. I covered volume I (Symphonies #3 & 7) in 2014 (Onyx 4137) and volume II (Symphonies #1 & 2, Sinfonietta & Autumnal Sketch) that same year as well (Onyx 4139) and found both very impressive. This issue features an interesting mixture of repertory nearly spanning the composer's entire career: the ever popular Fifth Symphony (1944); Prokofiev's least popular symphony, the original version of #4 (1929-30); and the early orchestral work, Dreams (1910).

After my first hearing of the Fifth, I concluded that Karabits' account of the first movement might well be the best ever. Certainly it surpasses anything in recent memory. It is slightly on the expansive side, like the recent Litton version on BIS (Naxos 8.500047), although it is not as broadly paced as either Bernstein version, or the Yoel Levi. Karabits conveys an epic sense, imparting weight with potent kettle drums and brawny low brass and giving thrust to the music with crisp and razor-sharp attacks. Karabits consistently phrases the music with an eye (and ear) toward the first movement's grand structure, the whole truly coming across as a "hymn to free and happy man…" as the composer had envisioned. The coda is simply stunning in its power and majestic sweep, in its clarity and crushing triumph. The ensuing movements are also quite convincing: the Scherzo and Finale have plenty of spirit and color, and the Adagio is beautifully phrased and played, though its faster tempo, especially in the middle section, seems not quite to fit into framework perfectly here. Still, it's well conceived and executed and, on the whole this must be counted among the finest Prokofiev Fifths on record.

The two other conductors currently involved in complete sets of Prokofiev's symphonies, Marin Alsop (Naxos) and Litton, also have impressive versions of the Fifth, but I think Karabits is at least as good as Litton and slightly better than Alsop. Bernstein, Tennstedt, Levi, Maazel and others have also made excellent recordings of the work as well, but this one by Karabits is easily in their league and features better sound.

Karabits' account of the Fourth Symphony is also excellent. The work has always struck me as slightly sketchy, with abrupt transitions (or none at all) and ideas that don't seem fully developed. Still, it's a major Prokofiev piece with plenty of good music. Based on his ballet, The Prodigal Son, it is a brief work, lasting here 23:17, the shortest of his symphonies after the First (Classical). Karabits gives the work a somewhat scaled down treatment, at times imparting a chamber-like quality to the music. Neeme Jarvi on Chandos gives the symphony a bigness, showing it to be a sort of embryonic root of the later and much bigger revised version of the work. Karabits' approach, however, is more subtle: detail emerges clearly and the restrained and sometimes Gallic character of the music (Prokofiev composed it in France) comes across convincingly. The slower theme in the finale (beginning at 1:47), for example, often sounds messy, frankly, in other recordings, but here it is presented clearly, crisply and with spirit. Other recordings of this work by Prokofiev completists Gergiev, Kitayenko, Martinon, and Rostropovich have their strengths, especially those by the first two conductors, but I would give the edge to Karabits.

The same holds true, more or less, for the brief early work, Dreams, although Marin Alsop's similarly paced version of the work on Naxos is equally compelling. Three other versions are on record: by Ashkenazy, who is much faster than Karabits and Alsop, and Neeme Jarvi and Theodore Kuchar who are both much slower. So Karabits and Alsop may be the choice here, but few people will be acquiring this disc for Dreams; rather, the main attraction is the excellent Fifth Symphony, and as a little bonus, the interesting Fourth as well. By the way, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is in fine form in all three works. The sound reproduction on this CD is very clear and well balanced. Highly recommended to all, and a must for Prokofiev mavens.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings