Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Duelling Prokofievs

There are two complete Prokofiev Symphony series on the go right now: Marin Alsop's on Naxos with the Sao Paulo Symphony (OSESP), and Andrew Litton's on BIS with the Bergen Philharmonic, and a third just finished at the end of 2015, by Kirill Karabits with the Bournemouth Symphony on Onyx. This is music that rewards comparative listening: I can listen for hours to different versions of different symphonies, stopping to compare passages, or just letting the music wash over me. There is a great range in musical styles among the symphonies and miscellaneous orchestral works included on these discs, and even within some of the works themselves. I couldn't listen to this much Shostakovich at once without musical or emotional fatigue. Prokofiev often lightens the moment with an innocent, non-sarcastic motif by the flute, or softens a martial movement with a consoling passage from the strings. He never cloys, and sentimentality seems foreign to him. How many composers can you honestly say this about?

All three of these series have received rave reviews; it's the fine details and one's personal preferences that will help someone decide which one to purchase. Luckily, with nearly ubiquitous streaming services you can pop in and out of all three, or even do some comparisons of your own. Here is Karabits in the grand opening movement of the greatest symphony, no. 6:

And a slightly more expansive reading by Litton:

Alsop's version will be released on August 12, 2016; I'll add the Spotify link here when it's available. Once again, Alsop and the Naxos producer and engineers are taking a best-strings-forward approach, with less of a focus on brass and woodwinds. This results in a softer, more restrained, less acerbic interpretation, which is made clear by listening to the first minute of all three versions (and especially Karabits' witheringly in-your-face beginning, which I found effective in its own way).  There is plenty of power on display from Sao Paulo, though, and Alsop makes sure to highlight Prokofiev's bleakest and harshest passages for maximum poignancy.

When you have orchestras of the calibre of the Bergen, Bournemouth and Sao Paulo ones, and such gifted conductors as Litton, Karabits and Alsop, there are no losers in a competition like this. Only winners: everyone who loves Prokofiev.

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