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Prokofiev: Symphonies 1-3 - Litton

Prokofiev: Symphonies 1-3 - Litton

BIS  BIS 2174

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Prokofiev: Symphonies 1-3

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor


As a composer Sergei Prokofiev was so versatile that audiences never quite knew what to expect. As a strategy, this could misfire but with his first symphony he got things just right. He once described what he had wanted to achieve: 'If Haydn had lived into this era he would have kept his own style while absorbing things from what was new in music. That's the kind of symphony I wanted to write ... 'The' Classical 'symphony has been a true classic since its first performance in 1918 and is one of the few genuinely witty pieces in the twentieth-century orchestral repertory.

A few months after the performance, Prokofiev left Russia for the USA where he remained for some years before settling in Paris in 1923. It was here that he composed the Second Symphony, now with the aim to be as up-to-date as possible . The first audience in 1925 was more bewildered than enthusiastic, however, and Prokofiev himself came to have doubts, wondering whether in this symphony 'made out of iron and steel' he'd overdone the rough counterpoint and density of texture. He now returned to a project he had been working on for several years - the opera The Fiery Angel. In 1928, when he began to think that no opera house would take it up, Prokofiev decided to reuse the music and found that 'the material unexpectedly packed itself up into a four-movement symphony' - his Third, characterized by an overwhelming sense of anxiety and tension.

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Review by Graham Williams - November 11, 2020

The survey of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies by Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS began in 2012 with a fine account of the composer’s 6th Symphony Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6, Lieutenant Kijé, Love for Three Oranges - Litton . In the years following, Symphonies 4, 5, 6 and 7 have appeared in performances that clearly showed the conductor’s affinity with these works and his fruitful relationship with the orchestra of which he was music director until 2015. That year he stepped down from his post and returned to the USA as music director of the Colorado Symphony leaving many wondering whether this cycle would ever be completed. This superb release answers the question with the composer’s first three symphonies accommodated, uniquely, on a single hybrid SACD with a most generous playing time of 86’ 33”.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’ was amongst the first of the composer’s works to gain international recognition and has remained a favourite with the listening public ever since its premiere in 1918. Litton’s performance is an absolute delight from first bar to last. His tempi in all four movements seem to me ideal, while the precision of his Bergen musicians could not be improved upon, notably the crisp and characterful articulation of the woodwind. The combination of elan and charm Litton brings to this music is irresistible.

From the wit of Haydn observed through a 20th century prism we move to Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2, - a work of ‘iron and steel’- that is one of the composer’s most complex and intractable scores. Its two-movement structure was modelled on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 111. The aggressive, dissonant and brutal music of the first movement is followed by an extended Theme and Variations that are hardly less uncompromising. Litton and his orchestra meet the challenges posed by this symphony with considerable success, revelling in its sinewy rhythmic pulse and unrelenting energy. Remarkably, he is most successful in managing to clarify the dense textures of this work, aided undoubtedly by the fine acoustic of the Grieghallen in Bergen and the impressive engineering from the BIS team. This symphony has never endeared itself to the concert-going public but Litton’s stunning account of this problematic score makes it a worthy addition to the catalogue.

For his Symphony No. 3, completed in 1928, Prokofiev used some of the material from his opera
‘The Fiery Angel’- a lurid tale of sorcery and demonic possession. It received its premiere in 1929 conducted by Pierre Monteux. Following the striking clangour opening bars, Litton’s performance of the first movement unfolds with textural clarity and a modicum of restraint that perhaps makes it appear less menacing than in some rival versions of this symphony that I used for comparative purposes (Claudio Abbado, Neeme Järvi, James Gaffigan and Vladimir Jurowski); a view reinforced by the sheer beauty of the playing in the lyrical ‘Andante’ that follows. T he phantasmagorical nature of the scherzo with its creepy slithering of the divisi strings is marvellously characterised and delivered with considerable virtuosity by Litton’s first-rate orchestra, to create an appropriately chilling atmosphere. The powerful finale, a summation of some of the work’s earlier music, is given a truly thrilling performance with Litton’s forces driving the symphony to a thundering conclusion.

Robert Suff was the producer for all three symphonies, while the sound engineers were Marion Schwebel (Symphony1 recorded May2015) and Fabian Frank (Symphonies 2 & 3 recorded August/September 2017).

For those who have already invested in the earlier issues of Litton’s cycle this release will likely be a mandatory purchase. Others have a choice of alternatives on CD and SACD, but this release should certainly be included amongst them.

Copyright © 2020 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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