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Friday, November 7, 2014

Prokofiev, Symphony No. 1 "Classical", Symphony No. 2, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

Prokofiev's seven symphonies are a body of work that continues to enjoy favor among the world's contemporary classical listeners. There is good reason for it. His symphonies are filled with melodic vividness, spirit and tenderness, turbulence and great orchestral writing in general. I've listened to them for years, never growing tired of them.

Conductor Marin Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra are in the process of recording the entire cycle for Naxos. This blog has covered the first two installments (type "Prokofiev" in the search box above for reviews of those) and now they give us a third.

This volume very sensibly pairs Symphony No. 1 "Classical" with his Symphony No. 2 (Naxos 8.573353) and also adds the very worthwhile bonus of an earlier orchestral movement, "Dreams, op. 6" from 1910. In the LP days pairing the first and seventh was common enough, but then you don't get the huge contrast between One and Two, the radical leap forward and stridency of the Second compared with the lyric charms of the First.

So I like the sequence. It gives you two Prokofievs side-by-side, the modern classicist and the avant innovator, and makes for an interesting listening experience.

Alsop and the Sao Paulo Symphony give us very spirited readings of the works, more spirited than some of the old LP versions I still have, but perhaps with slightly less precise focus than the old workhorse versions. It's a tradeoff. In the end the dynamic excitement wins one over.

The "Classical" Symphony in Alsop's hands gets boisterous as needed. She has an excellent understanding of the motor-propulsion that Prokofiev put across at his best, along with the lyrical bittersweetness. The orchestra responds with enthusiasm.

The Second has a good deal more of the modernist side of the composer, with greatly dynamic clashes between brass and strings and a brittle initial lyricism in the theme and variations movements that gives way to moments of exciting turbulence, only to return again to an agitated lyric calm. Again there is a sense of balance that brings out the coherency of the music as Prokofiev no doubt intended.

The ten-minute "Dreams" is a beautiful find. It gives you another take on Prokofiev's early period with a work that is far beyond the level of an immature composer. Prokofiev comes through as fully expressive but perhaps less himself than what followed. I am very glad to have it. It stands up as worthy music in every sense, even if perhaps it is a touch Scriabinesque.

Once again Alsop gives us readings that are not perfect, perhaps, but very strong and true to the music. These are versions you can live with and enjoy repeatedly, that have great excitement and charm. The Sao Paulo Symphony come through again. And you cannot beat the Naxos price.

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