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Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 & 5 - James Gaffigan

Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 & 5 - James Gaffigan

Challenge Classics  CC 72732

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 & 5

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)


The image Sergei Prokofiev seems to project, particularly when it comes to the music he wrote while living in the West from 1914 to 1935, is one of a joker and an agitator, yet a classical composer at the core. This double identity can be heard even in his earliest works, mostly for piano, written before 1914, and was sealed with his ‘Classical’ Symphony in 1917. The subtitle is the composer’s own. Indeed, Prokofiev stated, ‘I wanted to write a symphony that Haydn or Mozart would have written had they lived in the twentieth century.’

Symphony No. 5: Prokofiev wrote the work in the Soviet Union in 1944, when the Nazis were increasingly losing ground but had certainly not yet been defeated. Although the symphony lacks a programme per se, it is undeniably a depiction of war and victory. Heroism is always tinged with the tragedy inherent in war (and vice versa), and the grand gesture is both sincere and theatrical.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - April 28, 2017

I will start with which I normally end: The sound. Over the past decade I have been reviewing discs with varying sound quality. It is rare to get such a consistently high sound quality as with those released by Challenge Classics. CC is, of course, not the only one - and I certainly don’t want to start a discussion about who is best - my point being that recordings with the best possible sound quality add so decisively much to the artistic quality and thus to the overall appreciation that no serious music lover would want to miss out on it: The projected soundstage, the detailed definition of the instruments and the highest available dynamics are all an integral part of a realistic and emotionally satisfying musical experience; it is a condition sine qua non to getting as close as possible to being in a real concert venue.

On this third volume, and thanks to Bert van der Wolf’s North Star Recording Services BV, Challenge Classics amazes with yet another outstanding account in the series of complete (his ‘avant garde’ No. 2 still missing) Prokofiev symphonies by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and its Principle Guest Conductor, Jams Gaffigan.

Prokofiev’s No. 1 ‘Classical’ Symphony hardly needs any further comment, other than that it is proof of Prokofiev’s skill in compositional language enabling him to compose like Haydn possibly would have done, had he lived in the same era. Scholars and other specialists have sniffed it out, finding mistakes and oddities. In spite of that, this Symphony enjoys great popularity and many recordings exist. Gaffigan’s certainly counts amongst the top; Fresh, subtly flowing, most agreeable and all the rest… Let’s move on to No. 5.

There has been much speculation as to what extent Russian composers suffered under Soviet cultural control and to what degree they conformed to their directives. In the liner notes Emanuel Overbeeke gives his vision, shared by many: A war symphony, like Shostakovich 7. However, there are other views and musicologists can discuss about it at length. And besides, Prokofiev’s view is a different one « J’ai voulu chanter l’homme libre et heureux … il est né en moi et devrait s’exprimer ». (I wanted to sing a happy and liberated man … it’s born in me and had to express itself). Question is: Was this his real judgement, or was it meant to placate the Cultural Agent in Charge?

But one can also look at it this way: whatever the circumstances, a great composer is always able to craft a masterpiece. Like, for instance, J.S. Bach having to comply with his church masters in Leipzig, and W.A. Mozart with the taste of his time to earn a decent living. It did not affect the quality of the musical output of both. Irrespective of the fact that Prokofiev was, or was not, too lenient to views held by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, his symphonic output is of a high standard. We could, therefore, also leave things ‘as is’, allowing the listener to make up his or her own programme, as the music unfolds. By the same token, and in the absence of an official programme, it allows James Gaffigan to give the symphony a personal treatment.

As in the previous volumes, he handles the music more musically than endlessly highlighting the powerful elements as one might expect from a Russian colleague. It’s a matter of taste and in that respect I, too, am more inclined to appreciate his pursuit to unraveling the musical rather than the cold heroic content. Although he does neither shun to let the timpani rattle (which they do marvelously well!), nor add biting sarcasm in the second movement (Allegro Marcato), his more elegant approach reminds me of Prokofiev’s own view: ‘to sing a happy and liberated man’.

Comparing with Vladimir Jurowski, absolutely not the Russian colleague I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5, Ode to the End of the War - Jurowski confirmed me of the superior reading by Gaffigan. Jurowski clearly had a lacklustre off-day (live recording) and the RNO was not in top form either; the Dutch playing in comparison far more secure and lively under James’s baton.

There is another thing probably worth mentioning: elements of Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are incorporated in the two ballet-movements 2 and 3, but I detected a ‘nod’ to the Montagues – Capulets motif in the final movement, the meaning of which can be twofold, and I leave it with the listener to form a personal opinion.

With this third volume James Gaffigan and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, both in optima forma, are putting the final touches to a set that will long be remembered as one of the very best in any format and unsurpassed in high resolution.

Copyright © 2017 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by hiredfox - March 12, 2017 (1 of 6)

James Gaffigan's Prokofiev survey is excellent and a worthy challenger to Gergiev so good to see this third disc enter the catalogue. Only that elusive Second to go now.

Comment by hiredfox - March 12, 2017 (2 of 6)

James Gaffigan's Prokofiev survey is excellent and a worthy challenger to Gergiev so good to see his third disc enter the catalogue.

Only that very elusive Second to go now.

Comment by jdaniel1371 - March 12, 2017 (3 of 6)

I've listened to his 6th and felt it was a little too soft-edged and brass not "audacious" enough in the first mov't. My Western orchestra reference is Jarvi's on Chandos, FWIW, but that recording's a little harsh.

Comment by GROOT GELUID - March 15, 2017 (4 of 6)

About the second: We have recorded that (and no3) with Maestro Jurovksy and GASO in Moscow and it will be released on Pentatone. More to come.....

Comment by jdaniel1371 - March 15, 2017 (5 of 6)

Dear Mr. Groot: Thank you so much for recording it, why is your recent Ein Heldenleben offered only in 44/16?

Comment by Graham Williams - March 16, 2017 (6 of 6)

To jdaniel1371

The recording you refer to was not made by Polyhymnia but by Hessicher Rundfunk engineers, hence no involvement by Erdo Groot. For the record I found it disappointing and also wonder who thought it was a good idea to allot Ein Heldenleben just one track.