PROKOFIEV: Sym. No. 4 in C Major; Sym. No. 5 in B-flat Major; Dreams – Bournemouth Sym. Orch./ Kirill Karabits (Vol. 3) – Onyx

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 4 in C Major, Op. 47; Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Dreams, Op. 6 – Bournemouth Sym. Orch./ Kirill Karabits (Vol. 3) – Onyx 4147, 77:28 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The third installment of the Prokofiev symphony cycle by Kirill Karabits includes the ubiquitous 1944 Fifth Symphony (rec. 2-3 November 2014) and the rare, original 1930 version of the Fourth Symphony (rec. 8 April 2015) which Prokofiev composed for an aborted commission from Serge Koussevitzky.  The music, distinctly light and aerial in character, derives from elements from Prokofiev’s last ballet for Diaghilev – The Prodigal Son, 1928-1929. To designate the Fourth Symphony as a symphony-suite somewhat oversimplifies its seriousness of structure. The allusions to the ballet notwithstanding, the classicism of line and discipline of thematic development quite characterize the work as a symphony, perhaps more in sympathy with the relative restraint of Prokofiev’s final symphony, No. 7 in C. Karabits emphasizes the mercurial, bucolic elements of the first movement, whose Allegro eroica includes fanfares but little by way of monumentality.

The second movement, Andante tranquillo, borrows liberally from the last scene of Le Fils prodigue, conveying a pastoral luxury that is well suited Koussevitzky’s Boston woodwind players, like flute Georges Laurent. “I have become simpler and more melodic,” confessed Prokofiev to critic Olin Downes at the time. The rather sensual music of the Moderato, quasi allegretto third movement utilizes a seduction scene from The Prodigal Son, the “dance for the Beautiful Maiden.”  The music anticipates rhythmic kernels in Romeo and Juliet and remains devoid of the anger or scathing irony of the enfant terrible in Prokofiev. The last movement,  Allegro risoluto, invests some pompous energies into the score, but the rhythmic thrust lacks conviction, and settles for broad panorama, rather like an elaborately colored mural. Karabits and his Bournemouth forces grant the score a respectful beauty and cleanliness of articulation, but they seem to confirm the cool reception the work engendered at its premier. Little wonder that Prokofiev would overhaul the work with a renewed fervor in 1947, when the scope of the revisions would demand an entirely separate opus number.

The 1910 symphonic poem Dreams pays homage to the composer of the Op. 24 Reverie, Alexander Scriabin, whom the young Prokofiev deeply admired.  The poetry of Balmont fuses with a pastoral landscape out of the Ukraine to produce an impressionistic, mystical piece of some ten minutes’ length. We could argue that Liadov provides no less an influence as a master of color text-painting. The French horn work alludes in a hazy way to Scriabin’s penchant for scoring.  The music rises to a kind of richly vibrant pageant, only to dissolve in hues not so distant from Wagner.

The Fifth Symphony, while blatantly a “war symphony,” attempts to secure a sense of hope and beauty amidst the rubble of humanity. Lyricism and violence cooperate in this music to form an often mercurial amalgam that has impressionistic or dream-vision elements.  The melodic contours frequently seem like aching, residual motifs from Romeo and Juliet.  Karabits insists a quiet, introverted landscape in the opening Andante, without the menace and imperiousness that inhabit readings by Celibidache, Kousseivitzky, or Stokowski.  Karabits seems no less interested in the music’s structure, moving through the first movement with a clear sense of architecture, much in the Karajan mode. Having returned to the symphonic form after a sixteen-year hiatus, Prokofiev felt that the music would by its nature prove important, a rich tapestry of national and “global” colors, insofar as the optimistic human condition had been captured.

The second movement has always remained the most intensely dramatic and rhythmically alert of the four movements, brilliantly scored for a percussion, brass, and acerbic string and woodwind work.  Celibidache made a veritable, slowly building whirlwind out of the movement’s slowed down central section as it regained its vehement momentum. Karabits keeps a tight rein on the hues of his ensemble, opting once more for lyrical beauty over raucous sensationalism. If the colors indicate anything of Prokofiev in this reading, they nod to the influence of France and the nonchalant boulevardiers. The discipline of the Bournemouth ensemble still manages to raise our musical blood pressure, to be sure. Karabits leads a truly singing Adagio movement, a combination of extended aria and liturgical lament, certainly within the emotional sensibility, the tragic wistfulness, of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps we witness many Tybalts pass away. While elements of menace and militant sonorities pass by, the prevailing ethos remains subjective, sweetly devotional. We might recall the g minor Violin Concerto second movement. A pensive resignation opens the last movement, which then accelerates into its series energetic, colorful riffs – especially in the flute and clarinet – accompanied by striking and irreverent grumblings in the bass voices.  A kind of nationalistic hymn arises out of the violas and up through the horns, perhaps the one concession to the endurance of the Russian fatherland, expressed as pure bravura by the Bournemouth ensemble and its gifted conductor.

—Gary Lemco

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