November 19, 2020


Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 4 (revised 1947 version) and 7. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5; Scythian Suite. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6; Lieutenant Kij√© Suite; The Love for Three Oranges—Symphonic Suite. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

     Listeners who have been waiting eight years for the completion of Andrew Litton’s Prokofiev cycle can finally breathe a sigh of relief: it is done, and the most-recent SACD features all the excellence of playing, subtlety of interpretation, exceptional clarity of BIS sound, and interpretative intelligence that characterized the first three releases. But it has to be said that this cycle has been a long time coming, and that it has arrived with some slightly out-of-kilter elements – including different packaging for the most-recent disc (because BIS has moved away from once-standard plastic clamshell CD cases) and even a different affiliation for the conductor (Litton was head of the Bergen Philharmonic only until 2015).

     The actual recordings were not spread out as much as these releases would seem to indicate: the earliest performances date to 2012, the latest to 2017. And perhaps BIS plans to repackage the cycle as a single boxed offering – which would make a good deal of sense, since the strength of these performances lies largely in Litton’s overall conceptualization of the music and his handling of all the symphonies, however individualized they may be, as works that clearly sprang from the same compositional strategies, no matter how much those developed over the decades from 1916-17 (the “Classical” symphony) to 1951-52 (No. 7).

     Prokofiev actually wrote 8¼ symphonies that just happen to be numbered 1-7. It is a disappointment of Litton’s set that it includes only the revised, larger and grander and somewhat more pompous 1947 version of No. 4 and not also the original, slimmer and somewhat-more-to-the-point 1929-30 version, which also bears the same number. Litton does, however, offer in their entirety the two versions of the last of the four movements of No. 7, which have very different impacts and give the symphony as a whole a different character even though the number of bars rewritten by Prokofiev is a comparatively small one.

     The order in which these Litton performances appeared is a bit odd: the disc with No. 6 was released first, then the one with No. 5, then the one with Nos. 4 and 7, and most recently the one with Nos. 1-3. It was difficult to determine, over the extended release time of the cycle, just how coherent the whole thing would be – but the happy discovery, now that all the recordings are available, is that it is very coherent indeed. The drama and pervasive low-level gloom of No. 6 are especially effective here, and contrast quite well with the urgent, energetic, peppy-but-almost frantic elements of No. 5. The 1947 version of No. 4 is as big-boned as Prokofiev intended it to be, while No. 7 has more expressive warmth here than in many other performances, and produces two quite different effects when heard with the alternative final movements. As for the three symphonies on the most-recent SACD, No. 1 is as poised and balanced as always, but Litton focuses on the sly hints of modernity that show this to be a Haydnesque work but scarcely one that Haydn could have imagined. No. 2, that great yawp of 1920s machine-driven music, is sonically overwhelming and beautifully played, for all that it really does sound like a period piece. And Litton gives No. 3 an operatic aura sufficient to show the work’s relationship to The Fiery Angel, while allowing the piece to develop effectively on its own terms. The inclusion of some lighter material on two of the discs is welcome, further showcasing both the thoughtfulness of Litton’s interpretations and the high quality of the orchestra’s performances.

     Taken as a whole, this Prokofiev cycle shows Litton to be a first-rate interpreter of the music; and the Bergen Philharmonic proves its mettle again and again with crisp brass, strong percussion accentuation, and very fine sectional balance throughout. It is clear that Litton’s way with Prokofiev, maturing as it did through the time frame of these recordings, nevertheless has at its core a deep understanding of the composer and his means of communication – much as Prokofiev’s own development as a symphonist remained always in touch with core compositional principles that he sustained, albeit in different forms, from the first of his symphonies to the last.

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