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PROKOFIEV: Sym. No. 5 in B-flt Major – Royal Concertgebouw Orch. / Mariss Jansons – RCO Live

Chief Conductor Mariss Jansons leads his Concertgebouw Orchestra in a spirited, sonorous reading of the Prokofiev Fifth.

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Mariss Jansons – RCO Live multichannel SACD 16002, 43:06 [Distr. by Naxos] (4/29/16) ****:

Recorded live at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam 17-21 September 2014, the Prokofiev 1944 Fifth Symphony enjoys a performance history in Holland that dates back to 1948, when Eduard van Beinum brought the music before the orchestra. Composed in relative retreat from the cruelties of WW II, the music assumed a colossal import for the composer. Prokofiev said of his Fifth, “I wanted to sing the praises of the free and happy human being—of such a person’s strength, generosity and purity of soul. I cannot say I chose this theme; it was born in me and had to express itself.” From my own first impression of this potent and elegant work – from an RCA recording by Serge Koussevitzky – its combination of militant and lyrical energies struck me with the vigor and resolution of the spirit driving the music in the face of obvious, cataclysmic turmoil.

Mariss Jansons does not understate the heroic impulses that emerge in the course of an often tortuous first movement, Andante, in which the battery quite fulfills its function for wartime menace. The RCO strings and winds, however, bestow an optimistic grandeur to the procession, often nostalgic for a landscape or pantheistic solace that barely seems possible. By way of Koussevtizky’s and Celibidache’s renditions of the Allegro marcato (scherzo) movement, I realized how rife with sarcasm and savage irony Prokofiev’s symphonic (toccata-style) music could be, given his unquenchable search for what sings nobly of human nature. The various orchestral choirs of the RCO under Jansons play cat-and-mouse with the dervish rhythms and sonorous curlicues that wend their serpentine way through the movement, punctuated as it is with keyboard, string pizzicato and snare drum antics. The trio section of the scherzo reveals at several points animated tissue easily consonant with his score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. Jansons squeezes the da capo section for all of its fiery juice, with the RCO strings, brass and winds sliding and snorting in ecstatic fury.

Jansons approaches the Adagio as a love song, its urgent melodic content easily reminiscent of the score for Romeo and Juliet. Both the string stretti and the low wind punctuation bestow a degree of tragic intent into this music, occasionally hinting at a chorale or funeral procession. Several of the sforzati and crescendos from the RCO achieve a shattering sonority, only to be countered immediately by soft and bittersweet shades of tonality and color. The gentle, stately quality of the coda conveys a lyric security we recall from the second movement of the Second Violin Concerto. The finale, Allegro giocoso, opening with motifs of the first movement, quickly assumes a moto perpetuo strategy, a fiercely witty assemblage of rhythmic and coloristic contrivance. Jansons takes a light tack with this homage to the resilience of the human personality, having his strings use the tip of the bow to impel the figures forward. When the music breaks off to recall motifs from the Adagio, the heroic impulse asserts itself in syncopes that have a strange affinity for the Brahms sonority. Happily, the iconoclast in Prokofiev proves too strong for “classical” maintenance, and so the impish rondo resumes, fleetly irrepressible. We will have to imagine the unrestrained applause after this concert performance, in glorious hi-res surround.

—Gary Lemco


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