Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 5 in Bb; No. 6 in eb
Sakari Oramo, cond; Finnish RSO
ONDINE 1181 (79:47)
After the “Classical,” Prokofiev’s Fifth is his second most popular symphony. With recordings of the score currently numbering around 75, Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra have their work cut out for them to make their mark. One thing that surprises right off the bat is that Ondine has chosen not to make this release available in SACD format. The label has made a number of excellent
multichannel surround-sound recordings, and doing so for the present one may have lent it even more of a competitive edge, especially considering that there seem to be, at present, only three SACD versions listed—Sanderling on Audite, Jurowski on PentaTone, and Ashkenazy on the very pricey import label, Exton. All three have been reviewed in these pages, none too positively. So, the field was open for a new knock-out Prokofiev Fifth in SACD and Ondine missed the opportunity.
This, so far as I can tell, is only Oramo’s second go at Prokofiev on record. An earlier Ondine CD of the composer’s Cello Symphony-Concerto coupled with a cello concerto by Aarre Merikanto was given high marks by Michael Jameson way back in 1995 (issue 19:2). Up until now, Oramo is a conductor I’ve associated mainly with Sibelius and a number of other 20th-century Finnish composers, though I note from his discography that his repertoire is quite diverse.
Prokofiev said of his Fifth Symphony, composed in 1944, that he intended it as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit” [Boris Schwarz,
Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia
]. Indeed, the score projects a mainly optimistic outlook, especially for a work written as the Second World War raged on, though Prokofiev was safely domiciled in a Soviet retreat far removed from the shooting. How very different is Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, written a year earlier, a score believed to portray the brutality and atrocities of the Soviet regime. Prokofiev may have thought he’d curry favor with the Soviet authorities with his upbeat Fifth Symphony and by joining the chorus of those criticizing Shostakovich’s work. But toadying to anti-democratic, repressive forces, if that’s what Prokofiev was doing, didn’t help. Both he and Shostakovich, along with Khachaturian and other leading Soviet composers, were painted with the same brush of “formalism” and blacklisted in 1948 by the Zhandov decree. But it wasn’t Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that led the composer to run afoul of the authorities. It was his Sixth Symphony, completed in 1947, a work almost as bleak and grim as Shostakovich’s Eighth, that landed Prokofiev in the doghouse.
In general, I like these performances. Oramo handles the spirited hijinks of the Fifth Symphony’s second movement (
) with just the right touch of bad-boy, tongue-in-cheek humor, calling to mind Gershwin and a number of the French composers Prokofiev met during his time in Paris.
Perusing my collection of Prokofiev Fifths, I was frankly surprised to discover how many I’d acquired over the years. In no particular order, I pulled from the shelf recordings by Mariss Jansons/Leningrad Philharmonic (Chandos), Paavo Järvi/Cincinnati SO (Telarc), Michael Tilson Thomas/LSO (Sony), Bernstein/Israel PO (Sony), Levine/Chicago SO (Deutsche Grammophon), Ozawa/Berlin PO (Deutsche Grammophon), and Dutoit/Montréal SO (Decca). I haven’t made a comparison between all of them and this new Oramo version; if I had, I’d have missed the deadline for submitting this review. But I did settle on three that I thought would make for a representative sampling: the Jansons, mainly because the performance is with a Russian orchestra; the Levine, because there’s no better orchestra than the Chicago Symphony; and the Ozawa, because I’ve admired the conductor’s flair for orchestral color and the balletic agility in his recording of Prokofiev’s
Romeo and Juliet
with the Boston Symphony.
So how do these three picks stack up against the new Oramo? I was shocked—shocked I say—to discover that the one I thought would be all lightness and poise, Ozawa, turned out to be the second slowest as well as the least graceful. He drags all but the last movement out longer than Oramo, the second and fourth longer than Levine, and all of the movements, bar none, way longer than Jansons. Jansons, in fact, is overall the fleetest of the lot—38:14 to Oramo’s 41: 39, Ozawa’s 41:43, and Levine’s surprisingly sluggish 42:29.
Zeroing in on just the second movement (functionally, the symphony’s scherzo), Jansons, at an amazing 7:58, scintillates and sizzles compared to Oramo’s almost minute slower 8:45. I would still recommend Oramo, however, because his new version offers an improvement in sound over Janson’s 1987 recording made with the Leningrad Philharmonic on tour in Dublin, not to mention that the 38 minutes of the symphony is all that Chandos offers; and it’s still selling for full price.
When it comes to the Sixth Symphony, it not being one of my favorite Prokofiev scores, I don’t have as many alternate versions of the piece to compare to Oramo’s. But a very fine one is a 1993 Decca recording with Ashkenazy leading the Cleveland Orchestra. Ashkenazy lends a bit more weight and gravitas to the Sixth’s first movement—14:25 to Oramo’s 13:32—but Oramo makes up for it in the searching, searing
For Prokofiev’s Fifth, there are just too many noteworthy recordings for Oramo’s to be an only choice. But there are far fewer alternatives when it comes to Prokofiev’s Sixth, and Oramo’s new version should be a top contender. A very full disc (almost 80 minutes) and excellent recorded sound contribute to making this Ondine release an attractive and recommended addition to the Prokofiev discography.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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