Tuesday, February 19, 2008

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

February 19, 2008
UK release date: February 2008

Paavo Järvi's growing discography for Telarc with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra continues with this coupling of two popular Prokofiev works, the heroic Fifth Symphony and the delightful Lieutenant Kijé Suite.
The Fifth Symphony was composed in 1944 at a country retreat near Ivanovo where Prokofiev and other composers had been relocated to escape the effects of World War Two elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The first and third movements contain passages which evoke the terror of war, but victory was in sight at the time of composition and the symphony is ultimately an optimistic work.
Paavo Järvi is a sympathetic guide to the symphony, conducting a well paced reading which holds the listener's attention throughout. If Järvi's shaping of Prokofiev's expressive melodic lines could sometimes be more idiomatic and his projection of the main climaxes occasionally have a greater intensity, the work's emotional trajectory is nevertheless well conveyed by this performance.
Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite is derived from the music he wrote for a 1934 film and contains some of his most characteristic and recognisable music. (Themes from the suite have been used both in other films and in popular music, including Sting's song Russians and Greg Lake's I Believe in Father Christmas.) Järvi's fine performance captures most if not quite all of the music's irony, nostalgia and mock grandeur.
I was less impressed by the quality of the recording, however. Telarc discs are renowned for their engineering, but here the sound is both heavy in the bass and veiled in the upper treble. With the orchestra recorded in a reverberant hall, the result is that the double basses, tuba and bass drum end up dominating the soundstage and distorting the careful balance of Prokofiev's scoring. I found this an issue through both stereo loudspeakers and headphones. Quality improves slightly with the surround option of the hybrid CD/SACD - five channels coping better with the reverberation than two - but not all listeners will have this capability.
I suspect I would have enjoyed Järvi's performances more had the recording offered a more natural balance. Others listeners may be less concerned by this. If the coupling of these two Prokofiev works appeals, try to sample the disc before buying.
Christian Hoskins

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