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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6, Lieutenant Kijé, Love for Three Oranges - Litton

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6, Lieutenant Kijé, Love for Three Oranges - Litton

BIS  BIS-1994 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


PROKOFIEV, Sergei (1891–1953)
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1945–47) (Sikorski)
Lieutenant Kijé - Suite symphonique*, Op. 60 (1933) (Boosey & Hawkes)
The Love for Three Oranges - Symphonic Suite, Op. 33b (1921) (Boosey & Hawkes)

Andrei Bondarenko* (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)


Premièred in January 1945, Sergei Prokofiev’s optimistic and heroic Fifth Symphony had seemed to herald the victorious end of World War Two. In stark contrast to this, his Symphony No.6, which received its first performance in 1947, is one of his deepest and most personal works. Although it was greeted with enthusiasm by the audience, the Soviet authorities were critical of the work and in 1948 a Party resolution singled it out as ‘abnormal’ and ‘repellent’.

In fact, the first ideas for the symphony preceded those for the Fifth, and date from a period when the issue of the war was still uncertain. Early in 1945 the composer had suffered a collapse, from which he never completely recovered and which forced him to live the life of an invalid with almost constant headaches. In regard to the work, Prokofiev himself stated: ‘Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed.’

This haunted symphony is here coupled with two works which illustrate a very different side of the composer, his gift for creating vivid musical images that can sum up a scene in a few bold strokes. These are the ever-popular suites from The Love for Three Oranges, the tragic-comical opera from 1921, and from the film score to Lieutenant Kijé, a light-hearted satire from 1934.

The original film score included two songs, which form the second and fourth movements of the concert suite. Often performed in a version for solo saxophone and orchestra, these are heard in this recording in their original vocal form, performed by the Ukranian baritone Andrei Bondarenko.

With acclaimed previous recordings of music by Prokofiev, as well as by Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Andrew Litton and his Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra are a tried-and-tested team in this repertoire, and once again make the most of the enormous palette of colours and moods provided by these three scores.

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Reviews (2)
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Review by John Miller - February 25, 2013

Prokofiev conducted the première of the Fifth Symphony in January 1945 with great success. Seemingly, at age 53, his prospect seemed to promise many years continuing his service to Soviet music. This was not to be the case. Two weeks after the Fifth Symphony concert, Prokofiev was leaving a friend's Moscow flat when he was suddenly stricken with a minor heart attack. Having lost consciousness, he fell down a flight of stairs, and was taken to the hospital, where a serious heart condition and concussion were diagnosed.

From that moment, his ebullient life-style and hyperactive social and musical schedules were denied to him. "Almost everything that made his life worth living was taken away," wrote Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson in their study of the composer. "He was forbidden to smoke, to drink wine, to play chess, to drive a car, to walk fast or far, to play the piano in public, to conduct, to stay up late, to excite himself by much conversation, to travel more than a few miles." A frustrated and ailing composer spent the rest of his life (he died in 1953) in and out of hospitals, constantly taking precautions against a relapse.

In order to properly understand the Sixth Symphony, it is important to be aware of Prokofiev's position when he started work on it in the Spring of 1945. He went to a country retreat provided for composers by the government to begin work on it. His immediate motivation was a glad response to the end of the Second World War, but this was partly overcome by his blinding headaches and position as a semi-invalid under orders to do as little work as possible. Understandably, he was struggling with uncertainty about his future, and these uncertainties undoubtedly came to dominate the Sixth, in each of its three movements.

Prokofiev was cryptic and frugal in his remarks about the Sixth. The "glad response" had turned more to a sombre elegiac vein, represented by the key of E flat minor, except for the third movement Vivace with its bustling optimism, but even is not without interludes reminding listeners about the horrors of war. Considered by many scholars and listeners as the finest of the Prokofiev symphonies, the Sixth is certainly the most multifaceted and structurally complex of the cycle. No doubt this caused, in large part, its condemnation and rejection in Soviet circles, and its slow progress in the West. It remains, as it were, in the shadow of the popular Fifth.

The uncertainties about the "meaning" of the Sixth and its many complexities could make it possible to have a number of quite different interpretations, each of them equally valid. However, section by section comparisons with this new version from Litton with Sixths from well-known cycles, namely those by Gergiev and Järvi, did not reveal any very significant differences in interpretation. Even the tempi were broadly the same, despite Litton being about 1 min longer than the other two conductors in the second and third movements. These tempo differences were not immediately obvious to the ear, and the timings were seemingly "used up" only by certain short episodes in the complex structure of the movement. In other words, in my view, Litton's performance, with splendid cooperation from the Bergen PO, is up with the best available.

The most startling difference between Litton and Gergiev/Järvi is the startling "opening up" of Prokofiev's sometimes very thick-sounding orchestration by the brilliant BIS engineering. Without doubt, in multichannel this is the best of the Grieg Hall recordings so far. The bloom and resonance of the hall is palpable from the first few bars, as is the wide and deep sound-stage, viewed from the hypothetical "Best Seat in the House". Passing phrases from instrument to instrument across and up stage also added an extra frisson in revealing Prokofian orchestral devices. The stereo track is also excellent, although lacking the convincing "you are there" concert perspective. In fact, t provided difficult when switching back and forth from SA-CD to the RBCD of Gergiev and Järvi to match the music, as the orchestral details and balances sometimes sounded so different.

Many conductors are determined to wring the most emotion out of Prokofiev's wonderful lyricism as possible, but Litton appears to prefer leaving the music to speak more for itself, and this it does with true eloquence, thanks to the superb (and properly "russified") Bergen PO players, particularly the woodwind. He convincingly manages to convey Prokofiev's uncertainties and ambiguities, rather then Gergiev's "all sewn-up" approach to the first movement's mosaic of themes and moods. It is also Litton whose transparent orchestral sound reveals that the sets of ominous "tick tock" rhythms appear not just in the first movement, but in the others too, quite a unifying (and menacing) feature.

To complete this fine Prokofiev disc, Litton and the orchestra produce terrifically dynamic performances of Suites from Lieutenant Kijé and The Love for Three Oranges. Of course, there is plenty of competition out there for these very popular excerpts from Prokofiev's operas. Few, however, are so cunningly characterized and none so well engineered. For listeners who have been brought up on the orchestral version of the Kijé Suite, you should know that 'Troïca' and 'Romance' are sung by young Ukranian baritone Andrei Bonderenko, who in 2011 won the Cardiff "Song of the World" Competition held by the BBC. He brings an authentic rich Russian voice and correct pronunciation to his roles. "Romance" is in itself quite a study in rapid-fire articulation, which he spins out effortlessly. BIS, of course, provide the lyrics for the two songs, in Russian and English.

All in all, this is a deeply interesting and immensely enjoyable disc, complemented with a truly high-fidelity recording. I hope we can look forward to further Prokofiev symphonies in SA-CD. Full marks for performance and engineering!

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Review by Graham Williams - April 12, 2013

Though one can speculate as to how much Prokofiev's declining health and his experiences during the Second World War had on his state of mind when he completed his 6th Symphony in 1947, there is little doubt that it was profound. The 6th Symphony is the most personal and deeply felt of his seven, yet it has never achieved anything like the popularity of Symphonies 1 and 5. The depth of the symphony's emotional range and pervading tragic nature as well as its complexity, has perhaps mitigated against its general acceptance by concert goers, but fortunately it has fared much better on disc.

The purposefulness of Litton's account is apparent right from the sharp chords spat out by the brass at the opening of the first movement, and with well judged tempi and scintillating orchestral playing throughout he proves to be a persuasive guide through each of the work's three movements.
The BIS 96 kHz/24-bit 5.0 recording is well up to the usual exemplary house standard though I would have appreciated a little more of the of the Grieghallen ambience that, dare one say, Chandos engineers seem to achieve in the same venue.

The two fill-ups to the symphony are most welcome and both are performed with wit and panache by Litton and his excellent orchestra. The familiar suite from Prokofiev's quirky opera 'The Love for Three Oranges', effectively demonstrates the virtuosity of the Bergen players who deliver it with both sparkle and an appropriate lightness of touch.

What, however, is especially pleasing is to have Prokofiev's the Lieutenant Kijé Suite performed in the version - 'Romance' and 'Troika' – with the two vocal numbers here sung in spirited fashion by the fine Ukranian baritone Andrei Bondarenko. Those with long memories will remember that Erich Leinsdorf and the Philharmonia once recorded the suite in this version for Capitol in 1959 and I have always preferred it to the usual alternative scoring for tenor saxophone. I except though that others might disagree. Litton's performance matches the best available on CD that include those by George Szell and Claudio Abbado and the sonics are excellent.

The total playing time of 79' 10” is especially generous and this, combined with Litton's compelling performances, the assured orchestral playing and fine BIS recording, makes this SACD an essential purchase.

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2013 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Comments (1)
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Comment by hiredfox - December 11, 2015 (1 of 1)

Superficially this comes across as an excellent performance by the Bergen Philharmonic but in my opinion Litton is far too polite in his reading and too smooth. Where is the irony that characterised Prokofiev's music even more so in his later years in the Soviet Union? Litton is guilty of watering down and putting a sheen on lines that should be jagged edged and raw. A beautiful recording and a beguiling performance perhaps and that alone will seduce and mislead many but there is far more to Prokofiev than beautiful tunes set to a pastoral idyll.