This issue is the first in a new cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies. Naxos already has a complete cycle in its catalogue, by Theodore Kuchar and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. That effort was a good one despite sound reproduction in some of the symphonies that was overly reverberant and not quite state-of-the-art. Coincidentally, in that cycle Kuchar's Prokofiev Fifth also featured this same filler, the rarely heard symphonic suite The Year 1941. Thus, I have to admire Naxos for going into competition with itself, often a questionable venture for any label. Still, I'm not sure there's much of a risk here because Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is a hot property right now and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, of which she was named chief conductor beginning with the 2012 season, is obviously a major ensemble whose work many American and European listeners may not be familiar with.
They will be rewarded by this effort, as this fine orchestra turns in performances of world-class caliber here. And Alsop shows once again that she has entered that rare class of conductors who are consistently compelling and insightful.
The Year 1941, which leads off the disc, has had two other recordings that I know of, the aforementioned Kuchar and the Alexander Titov on Beaux with an unidentified orchestra. The Titov is raw and brisker than the others, while Kuchar is sort of a solid middle-of-the-road performance. Alsop offers a frenetic first movement (In the Struggle), a brisk and somewhat restrained middle panel (In the Night), and a lyrical, lush finale (For the Brotherhood of Man). Hers, to me, is clearly the best performance of the three, mainly because of the epic character, lyrical beauty and wealth of detail in the finale.
Alsop's Fifth is a solid and impressive effort: the first movement is heroic and powerful with well-chosen tempos, while the ensuing Scherzo is spirited and quite thrilling; the Adagio is dark and tragic as it should be, and the finale is humorous and ultimately triumphant. All of Prokofiev's ingredients are there and in vivid sound, though the bass is a little boomy. There is, of course, much competition in this popular work, which includes Bernstein (Sony – of his two available recordings on this label, the earlier effort, from 1966, is the stronger one), Levi (Telarc), Tennstedt (Profil), and, among the cyclists, Kitayenko (Phoenix Edition), Gergiev (Decca), Weller (Decca), and maybe Järvi (Chandos). Honorable mentions might go to Ormandy (his first effort, on Sony) and Ozawa (DG). I would say Alsop is certainly on the same level as most of these, though I would give a slight edge to Bernstein, Levi, and Tennstedt. But amid such formidable competition, Alsop must be given high marks for this Prokofiev 5th, which is very possibly the finest on record in the last decade or so.
Moreover, because of Naxos's excellent sound, along with the splendid performance of the underrated but masterly The Year 1941, this disc is a must for fans of Prokofiev and 20th century music in general. I am eagerly awaiting the other releases in this cycle, especially those of #6, Prokofiev's greatest symphony in my opinion, and Nos. 2 and 3, brash masterpieces, still vastly underrated.
Copyright © 2012, Robert Cummings