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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44 (1929) [35:55]
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1947) [43:01]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Pietari Inkinen
rec. 2018/19, Congresshalle Saarbrücken & Großer Sendesaal, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Germany
SWR MUSIC SWR19086CD [79:01]

My previous exposure to conductor Pietari Inkinen was in his generally fine Naxos series of Sibelius recordings with the New Zealand Symphony. In September 2017 he became Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie in Saarbrücken and has recorded a varied repertoire with that orchestra. The disc under review here is his first in what may be a series of Prokofiev symphonies. He has chosen one of the composer’s more problematic works, the Symphony No. 3, and the far greater Symphony No. 6. Although he does not sweep the board, he demonstrates affinity for Prokofiev based on these recordings.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 uses material from his failed opera, The Fiery Angel. Although in four movements with a sonata-form first movement, slow movement, scherzo, and finale, the music is less symphonic than dramatic. Indeed, Prokofiev originally intended it as an orchestral suite with music taken from the opera’s interludes. I have always found it a difficult work to like, though it has had its champions including Riccardo Muti and Riccardo Chailly. I compared Inkinen’s account with Valery Gergiev’s in his set of symphonies with the London Symphony on Philips and find that Inkinen is in no way inferior. His is a subtler interpretation that results in the music being less noisy and easier to appreciate. Part of that is due to the sound where the Barbican acoustic for Gergiev makes everything overly harsh, but less clear. Inkinen’s orchestra has a warmth that does not diminish the theatrics of the work. His tempos are also rather slower than Gergiev’s, but never seem sluggish. Highlights include the wonderful contrabassoon at the conclusion of the first movement, the skittering strings in the scherzo, and the percussion in the finale with its clanging bell. The bass drum as recorded there will knock your socks off!

The Symphony No. 6, on the other hand, vies for the composer’s greatest symphony with the more popular Fifth. The problem with the Sixth is that it is in three movements, the first two of which are heavy and violent while the finale begins with a theme recalling Peter and the Wolf. However, the general mood of the symphony is somber and the jollity of the finale is only temporary. It is arguable that the work has more depth than the Fifth, but formally is not as well constructed. Both works show Prokofiev at the height of his career and are wartime symphonies. While Soviet censorship eased a bit during the Second World War, it did not take long afterwards for things to tighten up once again. When the Symphony No. 6 was premiered on 11 October 1947 it was accepted as a memorial to the war, but almost immediately afterwards condemned by the Soviet authorities for its “formalism.” It has never gained near the popularity of its predecessor, but has received numerous recordings mostly as part of complete sets of the symphonies.

Inkinen has the measure of the piece, but there is even greater competition here than there is for the Third Symphony. My introduction was Eugene Ormandy’s second recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and, based on an admittedly distant memory of that performance, none has equaled it let alone surpassed it. As far as I can tell, it is not available on CD though an earlier monaural recording which I have not heard is listed. Accounts that do considerable justice to the Sixth are those by Neeme Järvi (Chandos), Andrew Litton (BIS), and Leonard Slatkin (RCA Red Seal). Valery Gergiev’s otherwise powerful performance with the London Symphony is let down by the harsh, congested sound of the Barbican acoustic. Of the other versions, I usually choose Slatkin’s with Washington’s National Symphony. His account never received the attention in the press it was due, perhaps because the National Symphony was recorded less often than other orchestras in RCA’s stable. The orchestra play their hearts out for Slatkin and he is given sound that is at once warm, yet crystal clear. Inkinen, as with the Third Symphony, directs a splendid performance where the strings in particular display an attractive warmth and the percussion, especially the featured woodblock, stands out. The principal horn’s solos in the first movement are beautiful, if not quite as memorable as Edwin Thayer’s with the National Symphony in the Slatkin performance. Likewise, the important tuba part in the finale, while more than acceptable, for me does not project enough as it does for Slatkin and Gergiev. The very ending of the symphony is difficult to pull off, as the music preceding it grinds to a halt and then suddenly speeds up. Inkinen, like many others before him, exits the work in a blur so that you barely hear the articulation of the last four notes. Both Slatkin and Gergiev are preferable here, though neither equals Ormandy as I remember his account.

Overall, these are estimable performances in really terrific sound. Inkinen manages the symphonies’ idiosyncrasies quite well and pairing the two works is an attractive proposition. SWR contributes a quality product with more than adequate notes in German with English translation.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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