Friday, February 08, 2008

CD REVIEW: Prokofiev Symphony No 5, Lt. Kije Suite

February 5, 2008
By Mary Ellyn Hutton

Prokofiev to Savor
Readings of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 can bludgeon the ear into submission, elevating the purely epic aspect of the work at the expense of deeper meanings. With his latest Telarc recording with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, released in January, CSO music director Paavo Järvi offers a more complete perspective. Like all great interpretations of Soviet era composers (and Järvi grew up in Soviet-dominated Estonia), this one also seeks the heart of the man. You can tell immediately -- in the opening bars of the first movement -- which have a gentle shaping and a pervasive nostalgia in keeping with Prokofiev’s difficult decision to return to Russia after years of fame in the West. As part of the bargain of being in his homeland again, Prokofiev had to live under Stalinist rule with all its limitations on artistic and human freedoms. Was it worth it? In his Symphony No. 5, which he called a testament to the human soul, the music says yes, despite a considerable admixture of pain. This is evident in the first movement, which builds to a massive climax with big gun percussion (timpani, bass drum, tam-tam) sounding repeated fortissimo crashes. This can ring hollow, but there is majesty and nobility in Järvi’s pacing, as the orchestra surges through sometimes painful dissonances to a towering, affirmative conclusion. The scherzo movement exudes Prokofiev’s trademark mockery, the thumb-nosing of his youth, heard here in snide trumpet blasts and giggling clarinet arpeggios. Järvi uses dynamics to exquisite effect (hairpin crescendos, sudden drop-offs in volume). The strings skitter merrily on no matter what transpires around them. The Adagio, by contrast, is all seriousness. The composer, who conducted the premiere of the symphony in Moscow in 1944 as victory bells celebrated the Red Army’s crossing into Nazi Germany, poured his complex feelings here. Violins soar ecstatically upward like something from “Romeo and Juliet,” but with full awareness of pain and sacrifice. The music turns increasingly tragic, finally succumbing quietly to its own heavy tread. It is in the finale, perhaps, that Järvi speaks most eloquently. This movement can be trivialized into a mere romp and certainly the CSO players give it a brilliant, virtuosic performance. Take it as you will, but I hear exaggeration in the thundering trombones and shrieking piccolo. The momentum is dizzying as it builds over frenetic rhythmic tattoos, spiraling to the final stinger chord, which cracks like a triumphant kick over the goalpost. Paired with the symphony is Prokofiev's “Lt. Kije” Suite, and it profits similarly from Järvi's insight and close attention to detail. The fictional army officer is depicted in all his made-up guises, heightened for surreal effect. The entire CSO becomes a troupe of clever mimes, saxophonist James Bunte setting a somewhat mournful tone for the whole thing. The piccolo strikes up a cartoonish march in “Birth of Kije.” The melancholy double bass combines with the flute’s sweet tracery in Kije’s “Romance,” while the violins provide occasional stabs of lovelorn distress. Things get falling down drunk in “Kije’s “Wedding” and the high-spirited “Troika” that follows. The haunting cornet solos that frame the suite sound faraway indeed. Combined with their 2003 all-Prokofiev recording, the complete suites from “Romeo and Juliet” (Telarc), this makes a potential two-CD set that presents Järvi and the CSO handsomely. Telarc’s audiophile sound is typically alive and clear as a bell. CD and SACD formats.
© Copyright 2008 by Music in Cincinnati

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