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Prokofiev: Symphony No 4 / Alsop, Sao Paulo

Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8573186   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Săo Paulo Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 18 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Prokofiev’s imposing Fourth Symphony and his final ballet for Sergey Dyagilev, The Prodigal Son, share common roots but are entirely distinctive in character. The vivid depictions in the ballet’s moral tale include sensual temptations, drunken debauchery, robbery and remorse. The 1947 revision of the Fourth Symphony, lengthened and enriched in orchestration by the addition of a piccolo clarinet, piano and harp, makes extended use of themes from The Prodigal Son as well as unused material. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony with Marin Alsop and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (8.573029) was described as “an outstanding achievement” by BBC Music Magazine.

R E V I E W S:

If Marin Alsop’s take on Prokofiev’s Fifth
Read more Symphony with her Brazilian orchestra lacked the last degree of power that the wartime work requires, the team’s talents are more suited to the Fourth, which is a font of piquant lyricism — the sort of magic that made Prokofiev one of the twentieth century’s greatest melodists. The composer expanded on thematic material from his 1928 Diaghilev ballet The Prodigal Son for the symphony, with the ballet inhabiting a similar musical world to the later Romeo and Juliet. Although not as intense in Prokofiev as Valery Gergiev and the LSO, Alsop and the São Paulo orchestra perform both symphony and ballet with virtuosic zing — and benefit from richer, more apt acoustics.

-- Bradley Bambarger, Listen Magazine

Marin Alsop is making a lot of recordings; maybe too many. Her first release in this Prokofiev cycle, the Fifth Symphony, was disappointing, but this new installment is both intelligently programmed and very well played and conducted. Coupling the Fourth Symphony with the ballet The Prodigal Son is a smart idea, since the symphony is based largely on material from the ballet. The clear and informative notes explain what comes from where in a way that permits listeners to skip around in both works and check out the relationship (I did, and it was fun).

There are two versions of the Fourth Symphony, the original and the composer’s revised, longer, and more opulent version, recorded here. The argument in favor of the early version includes its more modest ambition as well as its closer relationship to the ballet. On the other hand, the revised symphony will please those not especially fond of the ballet, or those who don’t want to listen to two works so similar in content. It’s a matter of personal taste, but I will say that offering the later version makes for more generous playing time.

Neither of these works features melodic material of particular distinctiveness, even though it’s all recognizably Prokofiev in timbre and gesture. Alsop does a fine job characterizing the abundance of motoric material in the ballet, and she makes the lyrical moments in the symphony sound genuinely memorable. The orchestra plays very well throughout, and the sonics are naturally vivid, less like a big orchestra in a big empty room than in the previous release in this series. A fine disc.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday

Prokofiev completed his ballet score The Prodigal Son early in 1929, on a commission from Sergei Diaghilev for his Paris troupe Ballets Russes. Later that year, in response to a commission from the Boston Symphony for a work to celebrate its 50th anniversary, he drew upon material from the ballet to produce his Symphony No. 4, op. 47. In the Symphony, however, that material is presented in a completely different order than in the ballet. For instance, the second movement of the Symphony is drawn from the final episode of the ballet, depicting the Prodigal Son’s return, while the Finale of the Symphony uses material from the first scene of the ballet. In 1947, Prokofiev revised and greatly expanded the Symphony, nearly doubling its length, and also added to the instrumentation. The revised version is slightly longer than the ballet and was assigned a new opus number of 112. So what we have are three distinct compositions, using much of the same musical material and displaying the different ways it can be worked out, a situation I find intriguing. Valery Gergiev included both versions of the Symphony in his complete traversal of the Prokofiev symphonies on Philips, as earlier did Neeme Järvi (Chandos) and Mstislav Rostropovich (Erato). Marin Alsop’s new recording is the only one currently available to couple a version of the Symphony with the ballet from which it originated.

Alsop’s rendition of the revised version of the Symphony is a fine one, less restless, driven, and abrasive than Gergiev’s compelling interpretation but convincing on its own terms. Her timings for each movement are significantly longer than Gergiev’s but close to those of Eugene Ormandy, with his “fabulous Philadelphians,” on an old Columbia LP I have that must date from around 1960. Also like Ormandy, she favors a more blended sonority than does Gergiev. By comparison with the latter, she sacrifices a degree of intensity to a more flowing lyricism and greater sense of integration and continuity. But while the sumptuously played Ormandy performance often strikes me as a bit too relaxed and comfortable, Alsop infuses more rhythmic life and generates greater tension and impetus, and despite similar timings her rendition frequently seems faster. The fine quality of the São Paulo Symphony, which I had not heard before, comes as a pleasant surprise, although this Brazilian orchestra doesn’t match the Philadelphia or Gergiev’s London Symphony in tonal weight.

In The Prodigal Son , Alsop’s overall timing is more than three minutes longer than Neeme Järvi’s (Chandos), with longer timings in eight of the 10 individual movements. Where Järvi emphasizes the brash, motoric elements of the score, Alsop’s more linear treatment rounds off some of the sharp edges, and she is more inclined to bring out lyricism in those sections where it is applicable. In “The Seductress” she is much more deliberate and more sensuous, and she is also more tender and affectionate at the end in depicting the father’s welcome of the returning prodigal. But she doesn’t stint on force and energy where that is required, and in “Drunkenness” she is no less headlong and violent than Järvi. The balance in her orchestra is weighted more toward the lower end, producing a more rounded sonority in comparison to the very bright sound of Järvi’s Scottish National Orchestra, with its lean but tightly focused strings. Another excellent performance, by Mikhail Jurowski and the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne (CPO), slightly exceeds Alsop’s overall timing, due to wider tempo contrasts rather than consistent deliberation. But Jurowski’s approach does rely more on forceful vertical stresses than headlong forward motion to generate thrust, abetted by a recording that places more weight in the bass. I find these three quite different performances about equally persuasive.

Naxos has recorded the São Paulo orchestra in a natural, concert-hall perspective, without spotlighting. The result is a more spacious and blended sound than in rival recordings by Gergiev, Järvi, and Jurowski, with detail well served but less sharply etched. The sound is full and well balanced, wide in dynamic range, and free from harshness in the loudest passages.

I have a feeling that even after Prokofiev’s final reworking, this music remains more balletic than symphonic, but Alsop makes a very good case for the Symphony. In any case, each work contains some music that the other does not. This fine release will allow interested listeners to explore and decide the issue for themselves.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 4 in C major, Op. 112 by Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Săo Paulo Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947; USSR 
L'Enfant prodigue, Op. 46 by Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Săo Paulo Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928-1929; Paris, France 

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