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*PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 in b-flat, Op. 100; Scythian Suite, Op. 20 – Bergen Phil. Orch./ Andrew Litton – BIS

*PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5 in b-flat, Op. 100; Scythian Suite, Op. 20 – Bergen Phil. Orch./ Andrew Litton – BIS multichannel SACD 2124, 67:00 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

If there is a greater conductor than Andrew Litton on the world stage today, I do not know who it would be. Virtually everything he has recorded is no less than very good, the vast majority in fact superb. It’s been that way almost from his first moments in the concert hall, and he just keeps getting better and better. Though I am a big fan of Gergiev’s Prokofiev symphonies, the quality of this Symphony No. 5, along with the previously issued Sixth, could result in the best set ever of these symphonies if BIS decides to go whole hog in doing all of them.

The 1944 Symphony is easily the composer’s greatest, seconded only by the Classical, which appeared in 1917. That year is extraordinarily significant in so many ways for Russian society and the world at large that it doesn’t seem possible the composer recreated the eighteenth century in such magnanimous and genteel terms. The following three symphonies were products of his European sojourn, rowdy and dissonant, and even he was unsure of their effectiveness. The man pined away for the homeland and eventually returned, buying wholeheartedly into the Soviet common man doctrine—perhaps the only Soviet composer to do so except Khachaturian—and sought in the Fifth Symphony to create a piece of optimistic patriotism that reflected this spirit. Unwittingly, and maybe with complete naiveté, he accomplished this and much more, generating a repertory standard that has never left since the day of its first hearing.

Litton is able to capture the essence of this work with an appealing lyrical emphasis that also allows the bombast, but keeps it in perspective. Too often conductors go for the big moments simply for gratification—there is no understanding of the surrounding structure that makes the big moments so effective. Litton has none of it—every bar is treated with the weight and emphasis that it deserves, and the result is a beautifully rendered performance played to the hilt.

The Scythian Suite never actually saw the light of day in original guise. Prokofiev was vying for a ballet commission from the Ballets russes, but Diaghilev dissed the final product, based on the history of the Scythians, ancient inhabitants of southern Russia, called Ala and Lolli.  He perceived then, and probably correctly, that Prokofiev really had little understanding of the medium at that early point in time. Even Balanchine insisted that the composer cared little for dance music. But in 1916 he culled together a suite of the best music, and this dissonant and unrelentingly brash statement achieved a modicum of popularity, even to this day. Litton’s performance is as good as I have heard, even though it still takes a lot of selling to make this work likeable, let alone loveable.

BIS has given him fantastic surround sound in a recording of extreme clarity and warmth. A terrific issue, knocking off any number of so-called “great” recordings that preceded it.

—Steven Ritter

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