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Prokofiev: Symphony No 5, The Year 1941 / Alsop, Sao Paulo Symphony

Prokofiev / Sao Paulo Sym / Alsop
Release Date: 09/25/2012 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 31   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Blu-ray Audio:  $19.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is an audio-only (i.e., with no video content) Blu-ray disc playable only on Blu-ray players.

Also available on standard CD

In her review of the CD version of this release (Fanfare 36:2), Lynn René Bayley used the inclusion of Prokofiev’s The Year 1941 as a springboard for a diatribe against the “snob attitude” of classical music, exemplified by the tendency to record “lesser works [that] were forgotten and neglected for a reason.” In general, I share her belief that most forgotten music is best left forgotten. The Read more question is whether she’s right that The Year 1941 in particular is a “prime example” of the “least good and least interesting.” And, especially given the historical and discographic blunders in her review, her argument is shaky at best.

First, a historical point: She says that The Year 1941 was “written (as was Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony) to celebrate the victory of the Red Army against the Nazis.” Actually, neither work celebrated victory, which was still far in the future. Rather, both were intended to boost morale when victory was uncertain. To listen to The Year 1941 expecting a victory celebration, and then to criticize it for being “inappropriate to its subject matter,” seems bizarre.

Second, a discographic point: Bayley buttresses her claim for the work’s worthlessness (“Who cares?,” she asks with her familiar flip condescension) by suggesting that even the conductors who perform it aren’t committed to it. The only reason it is ever recorded, she insists, is, “of course,” as a kind of duty when someone is “present[ing] the ‘complete’ orchestral works of Prokofiev.” Of course? Of the four recordings I know about—this one and the ones by Kuchar, by Ashkenazy, and by Rozhdestvensky—none are part of a project to record Prokofiev’s complete orchestral works (although two are provided as fillers in a symphony cycle). Yes, The Year 1941 has come in for its share of criticism; and Bayley may be correct when she passes on the information in the program notes suggesting that the piece was panned by Shostakovich (who generally had a vexed relationship to Prokofiev) and Miaskovsky. But it’s disingenuous to infer that the conductors who have recorded it share that disdain. Rather, there’s good evidence that some people who know it do care. (Sviatoslav Richter, for what it’s worth, admired it, too). And since even Bayley herself claims that The Year 1941 is better than Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica and Rossini’s Il viaggio a Rhiems, I suspect that there may be a lot of other listeners out there who don’t know it who might care, too.

So what does it sound like? Most critics (including Bayley) summon up Romeo and Juliet as a point of orientation—and for good reason. The opening battle music, with its daring trumpet acrobatics, will surely remind you in its gestures and even its motivic shapes of the fight music in Romeo; and the more lyrical outpourings share a great deal with Juliet’s music (especially clear in the solo flute interruptions during the darker murmurings of The Year 1941’s second movement) and the love music. No points for originality, I suppose—but my guess is that lovers of Prokofiev’s greatest ballet will enjoy this, too. I’m particularly taken with the dark tread of the strings in the opening of the second movement (“In the Night”), and with the surprising poignance of the Finale, a hymn to “brotherhood” with more nostalgia than pomp, one that sounds far more like the bittersweet closing of Romeo than the upbeat and patriotic final pages of Alexander Nevsky. On the whole, it’s a work in which consolation is far more important than the “celebration” Bayley was looking for—as is especially clear in this rich, loving, and (in the second and third movements) patient performance.

As for the main course: in his typically astute review (also in 36:2), Ronald E. Grames rightly referred to it as “a marvelous rethinking of the work,” pointing to its tenderness and its emphasis on the music’s lyrical side. As he suggests, the performance gains its power through its large-scale shaping and its handling of the darker elements rather than through “volume and rhythmic edge:” there’s a tremendous sense of foreboding, for instance, in the benumbed trumpets at figure 48 in the second movement. In general outlook, it’s similar to the reading by Thomas Sanderling (30:4), but to my ears, Alsop does a better job of conveying her against-the-grain vision. Would I choose it as my only representation of the score? Probably not. Having grown up with the more corrosive Koussevitzky reading, I’ve come to prefer more sheer adrenaline, more heroic grandeur. But if you’ve already got the Koussevitzky, the Bernstein/N.Y., the Järvi, or the surprisingly tough-minded Tennstedt, Alsop offers a persuasive alternative vision. The orchestra plays with the lush sound we’ve come to know from their widely admired Villa-Lobos recordings; we can only hope that their partnership with their new principal conductor gives them the stability they deserve. The Blu-ray sound is rich and atmospheric, with plenty of bass definition if you pump up the volume. I eagerly await the rest of the cycle.

FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 by Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; USSR 
The Year 1941, Op. 90 by Sergei Prokofiev
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1941; USSR 

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