We expect phenomenal playing from the Berlin Philharmonic, and they deliver the goods here. The strings are a marvel of suppleness and precision. The solo clarinet and flute – especially in IV of Symphony 5 – are seductive and yet dynamic. Orchestra, conductor, and engineer all deserve commendation for their near-perfect ensemble balances. For example, Prokofieff's wonderful piano writing – which is nearly inaudible in most recordings – is never once lost in the fray. Each and every color stands out just as it should, and delicate inner voices are always clearly heard.
Ozawa's relaxed, easy-going, soft-sell approach to this music works best in I of Symphony 5. Prokofieff was fully capable of being both bombastic and bathetic. Ozawa never allows those elements to creep into his performance. At the same time, when drama or power are required – as in the development section of I – Ozawa supplies it. His excellent phrasing and sense of the grand line holds this frankly episodic movement together exceptionally well.
II has plenty of fire and excitement, but it lacks the demonic wit that other conductors (notably Eugene Ormandy) have found. The emotional heart of the symphony is the ravishing 3rd movement adagio. To me, III has always seemed to be a direct descendent of the star-crossed love music from Prokofieff's Roméo and Juliet. While Ozawa's fine sense of detail remains intact, he's cool and distant where passion and fire are clearly needed. The conductor's reticence carries over to IV, which is equally deficient in energy and emotion.
Lt. Kijé suffers from the same coolness which plagued the last half of the Symphony. Moreover, despite the presence of an overly-prominent baritone soloist in II and IV, this performance stubbornly refuses to sing. Ozawa has a very limited range of tempos in this work – his adagios are too fast while his allegros are much too slow. Only in V does he begin to find the ironic humor and boundless exuberance that is inherent in the work.
David Fanning's excellent notes are informative, and he offers some especially provocative thoughts on Prokofieff's most familiar symphony.
Purely in terms of orchestral execution and recorded sound, this disc can't be beaten. However, for an interpretation which plumbs the symphony's considerable depths, hold out for Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra recording. Reiner continues to reign supreme in Kijé.
Copyright © 1995, Thomas Godell.
This review originally appeared in the American Record Guide