December 07, 2017
(++++) RUSSIAN MASTERS
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics. $16.99.
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 7; The Love for Three Oranges—March and Scherzo; Lieutenant Kijé—Suite. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.
The works of the great Russian symphonists have so much to say, and say it with such elegance, that new interpretations are always welcome – as are these two, with one significant caveat. Vladimir Ashkenazy, himself Russian-born, has a deep affinity for Rachmaninoff’s music, and the live 2016 recording of Symphony No. 1 on Signum Classics is a real winner for those who do not yet own a performance of the symphony. Although the first performance of this symphony was famously awful, conducted by Glazunov (a fine composer but never a very adept conductor) when he was apparently drunk, the symphony itself is a towering achievement, better-organized and more tightly knit in many ways than Rachmaninoff’s two later ones. Ashkenazy gets excellent playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, which does not have the ideal sound for such deeply Russian music – the strings are very clear, but not as warm as those of the best Russian orchestras, and some additional growling in the brass would have been welcome – but if the performance lacks a certain inherent Russian-ness, it possesses instead a very well-thought-through progress that shows the deep unity of the symphony and the intricacy with which the young composer sustained its emotional arc. Ashkenazy’s conducting is heavily shaped by and responsive to his many years as a piano virtuoso, with a strong sense of structure and the ability to balance lines, including the orchestra’s middle voices, so as to heighten the emotional communication of the music. The performance is a solid and highly admirable one, but for all its quality, the release has a flaw in that it includes only the symphony, which means the CD runs a mere 43 minutes. That means buying a full-priced CD with only as much music as used to fit on a single vinyl record – a justifiable expense for Ashkenazy fans and perhaps for people just starting to collect Rachmaninoff’s symphonic works, but otherwise a bit too much of an indulgence. High-quality CDs can now contain more than 80 minutes of music, and the decision to release one with barely more than half that amount of material makes the purchase decision for listeners more difficult to justify. That is too bad, since Ashkenazy’s handling of the symphony is so idiomatic and packs such a solid emotional punch.
There is a similar less-for-your-money caveat with the new recording of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 on Naxos, featuring the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. This orchestra is even less Russian-sounding than the Philharmonia, and Alsop does not have a particularly strong feeling, either intuitive or learned, for Prokofiev’s music, or indeed for much of the standard repertoire. But she is frequently excellent when conducting modern works, and the 20th century is something of a specialty for her; and the result in this case is one of the best discs in her Prokofiev cycle – which this release completes. Alsop is a little light on the bitter and sarcastic elements of the symphony, but she gives full rein to its warmth, nostalgia and frequently crepuscular sound. The musicians play very well indeed for her, and if their sectional balance is not quite as good as that of the Philharmonia Orchestra, it is certainly fine; furthermore, when Alsop calls for genuine full-orchestra sound at the symphony’s climaxes, she invariably gets it – with the result being highly dramatic and heartfelt. However, the production decisions regarding this disc are even harder to fathom than those relating to Ashkenazy’s Rachmaninoff First. The Alsop CD runs less than 56 minutes, which means there was plenty of room for additional material. But the chance to explore Prokofiev further is thrown recklessly away. This is most notable in the intelligent idea of including both the endings of the symphony’s finale – the original quiet and enigmatic one, which sounds a bit like something by Shostakovich, and the louder and brasher one that Prokofiev created to satisfy the Soviet authorities. But instead of presenting the final movement in its entirety with both endings, or even offering, say, the last three minutes or so, during which Prokofiev recalls earlier material, all Alsop provides is the final 20 seconds of the revised ending – completely out of context. Furthermore, while there is plenty of room on the CD for the entire six-movement suite from The Love for Three Oranges, since the suite lasts less than 20 minutes, Alsop presents only four minutes of the music – the third and fourth movements. The reasoning for this is difficult to comprehend. She does, however, include the entire five-movement Lieutenant Kijé—Suite, and presents it with lilt, charm, and just the right degree of snide humor. In fact, the presentation makes the omission of the balance of the suite from The Love for Three Oranges even more puzzling – clearly Alsop has a way with Prokofiev’s film and stage music. Listeners who have collected the five earlier CDs in Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle will surely want to have this one as well, despite the reality that the disc could easily have offered even more pleasures than it in fact does.