> Prokofiev Symphony 2 Polyansky [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40 (1925)
Symphony-Concerto in E minor, Op.125 for cello and orchestra (1938)
Alexander Ivashkin (cello)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyanski
Recorded at the Moscow Philharmonic, December 2000 (Symphony-Concerto)
May 2001 (Symphony)
CHANDOS CHAN9989 [79.38]


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Chandos’s previous Prokofiev series, recorded in the 80s with Neëme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, is still probably the most recommendable complete cycle available. Chandos now seem to feel the need to start again, the reason possibly being that they are now using ‘authentically’ all-Russian forces. Whatever the company’s motivation (or if indeed it is to be a complete cycle), the results are impressively powerful, and the coupling stimulating and generous.

The Second Symphony has never really gained a firm foothold in the repertoire. It is often criticised excessively by writers as ‘not a successful symphony, if only because of its lack of cohesion and undisciplined substance’ (Robert Layton). Others see it as setting out to shock Parisian audiences in the Twenties (as The Rite of Spring had famously done a dozen years earlier), or just plainly too loud and brash for its own good. It doesn’t help matters that Prokofiev himself, having set out to write a symphony ‘made of iron and steel’, then proceeded to judge it very harshly. Writing after the premiere, he commented ‘Neither I nor the audience understood anything in it. It was too thickly woven. There were too many layers of counterpoint which degenerated into mere figuration’. This performance certainly tries to make us understand the piece as not only a child of its time, but a necessary development in its composer’s creative output. The short opening movement is simply an explosion of violent dissonance, the most unremittingly loud music he ever wrote, the Scythian Suite included. But Polyansky teases out other elements, and tries to make us hear some of Prokofiev’s sonata-exposition material, which is buried there somewhere. He certainly doesn’t underplay the aggression – indeed, some of the high, screaming trumpet lines sound more like a Stan Kenton arrangement – but he seems determined to show us another face to the music. The long second movement is a favourite Prokofiev structure, a theme and variations, and puts the short opening movement into relief (the whole bi-partite scheme is modelled on Beethoven’s Op.111 Piano Sonata). Even here, the calm opening eventually gives way to an intense climax, before subduing to a quiet coda. Polyansky is impressive at judging the differing moods, and his orchestra support him with a suitably Russian sound – rather reedy woodwind, a slightly ‘wobbly’ horn vibrato, and a slight edge to the well-drilled string sections.

The coupling is very apt, showing how the ‘enfant terrible’ mellowed into one of the most lyrical compositional voices of the 20th Century. Normally known as the Sinfonia-Concertante, it is here given its proper title of Symphony-Concerto (from the Russian Simfonia-Kontsert). This is indeed more appropriate to the major dimensions and sheer symphonic scale of the work. Written for, and in close collaboration with, Rostropovich, the piece teems with memorable ideas, and embodies at least three of Prokofiev’s four compositional directions – classical, lyrical and motoric (toccata-like); the fourth, modernist, is well represented by the Second Symphony! Prokofiev does recycle some material from his earlier Cello Concerto, but had in the intervening years, become a complete master of his craft. The sheer beauty of sounds conjured up point to Romeo and Juliet and the Fifth Symphony, and the piece, which has fared well on disc, can receive no better advocacy than that of Alexander Ivashkin. His sumptuous tone, impeccable tuning and fiery virtuosity are up there with the best, and he is brilliantly supported by Polyansky, who sensitively works with his soloist through the many shifts in tempo and mood.

The recording is well up to Chandos’s house standards, with a only a hint of ‘in-your-face’ forward balance at the start of the Symphony (this could, of course, be the music as much as the recording). In any case, it is set in a suitable acoustic, and sounds eminently truthful – indeed, the producer is Polyansky himself, who presumably knew the sort of sound he wanted. The liner notes, by the cellist on the disc, are concise and stimulating. Highly recommended.

Tony Haywood


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