PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 44 “The Flaming Angel”; Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131; Vivace alternate ending – Bournemouth Sym. Orch./ Kirill Karabits – Onyx 4137, 65:08 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (3/1/14) ****:

Conductor Karabits claims that each of these symphonies owes a debt to the theater in Prokofiev’s oeuvre: the Third Symphony indebted to the 1928 opera The Fiery Angel, which Koussevitzky had adapted as a concert suite from its Act 2 for a Paris presentation; and the Seventh Symphony reworked from materials for a 1936 production of Evgeny Onegin by Pushkin. Karabits wants to inscribe the entire Prokofiev symphonic cycle , and this first installment bequeaths us two fiercely driven scores, perhaps more indicative of Karabits’ personal demons in No. 7 than of Prokofiev, who had a fine exponent in England and on record in Nicolai Malko, who takes a much more subdued stance toward this valedictory music.

The 1928 C Minor Symphony stands well enough on its own so that any knowledge of the opera’s theme of demonic possession remains extra-musical. After the radical experiment of the Op. 40 Second Symphony, Prokofiev’s return to sonata-form – despite clashing harmonies amidst tolling bells – must have seemed a conservative reaction. But Karabits wants to accent the work’s often bitter convulsions, especially when Prokofiev’s contrapuntal exercises assume a militant character. The ensuing Andante, however, maintains its gossamer, lyrical character, the musical material’s having been reworked from Act V and the Faust episode of The Fiery Angel. The Bournemouth string work proves particularly haunting here.

More string virtuosity marks the third movement Allegro agitato – Allegretto, which serves as a scherzo and trio, Prokofiev’s having divided the strings into thirteen parts and adding brass and drum to the punishing da capo. The cruel, electrical energy of the grotesque movement may owe debts to Mussorgsky, in particular, A Night on Bald Mountain, in addition to the depiction of sorcerer Agrippa von Nettesheim from the opera. The finale of this symphony – Andante mosso – Allegro moderato – has been described as “grim” and unrelentingly tragic. Karabits emphasizes the brutality of the hammer blows, perhaps akin to what Mahler described in his own Sixth Symphony. The music projects a deep personal anguish interspersed with lyrical sarcasm, a bitter-sweet pill to swallow as a prelude to any Prokofiev cycle. Brilliant sonics here are provided by Mike Clements.

The 1952 Seventh Symphony bears an entirely more subdued sensibility, which more severe critics attribute to Prokofiev’s waning powers. But for a sense of magisterial, exalted, even tragic, lyricism, the work holds a special allure. While the music may have been intended for a children’s theater production, the dramatic urgency of the interior subjects reaches a pitch that rivals some of the fine ballet music in late Prokofiev, as in Cinderella. The scoring of flute, xylophone, and glockenspiel proves aurally captivating, and the Bournemouth strings certainly preserve the composer’s yearning spirit. There are quotations from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or that may simply remind the composer of his youthful joy in music.  The Andante espressivo rather radiates emotional sentimentality, especially since the second movement waltz indulges a world already occupied by Tchaikovsky and Glazounov. In the course of a relatively joyous last movement, Prokofiev utilizes a cyclic procedure to bring back two (heroic) themes from the opening movement, the whole often nostalgic for the ingenuous freedom that the Classical Symphony had expressed in its “learned” wit. Because of the disc’s banding, the 29-second alternative finale can be played only as an after-thought.

—Gary Lemco