BBC Legends BBCL 4184-2, 64:39 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
The two major works led by Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky (b. 1931), the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony (10 September 1971) and Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Purcell (9 September 1960), represent composers with whom Rozhdestvensky has had a long association. In 1965, Rozhdestvensky led the Bolshoi premier of Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Prokofiev was a staple of Rozhdestvensky’s senior partner at the Leningrad Philharmonic, Evgeny Mravinsky. It is along the same concentrated, epic lines that Rozhdestvensky molds the B-flat Symphony.
The combination of intense, bold strokes and etched, demonic incisiveness, especially in the Scherzo: Allegro marcato, makes for a volcanic, colorful ride, one the audience clearly enjoys. There is a decided emphasis on the softer dynamics, pianos and pianissimos, in the textures, making us even more alert to Prokofiev’s selection of timbres. Rozhdestvensky takes the trio section of the Scherzo at a leisurely, the brisk andante, the winds and brass allowed to punctuate vividly the syncopated colors. The graduated return da capo is in the slow, theatrical tradition set by Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos and Celibidache – a compressed spring ready to explode. The audience is still talking to itself when the misty, expansive Adagio opens with its intimations of homeland yearning for better days. The martial, deterministic forces soon overpower the nostalgia, so the return of the bucolic musings become only more pained as they dissolve back into the mist. Rozhdestvensky achieves an emotional reconciliation in the Allegro giocoso finale, the lyric and militant impulses having found some common ground.
The Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell have provided no end of introduction to the choirs of the orchestra; in this case, they serve display the particular virtuosity of the Leningrad Philharmonic’s timbres and their stop-on-the-dime responsiveness. Played as a straight orchestral piece, the Rozhdestvensky experience might just as easily have been led by Stokowski, for its colors and shimmering vibrancy, as in the Polacca from the strings. The oboe and harp variations could have come out of Tchaikovsky. The double bass variation suggests how the Leningrad might sound in the Sibelius D Major Symphony. Fluid trumpet work leads to the trombone variation, silver and gold. The xylophone and battery give us hints of Shostakovich’s Age of Gold and Capriccio espagnole. Flutes and piccolos initiate the glittering fugue, exuberant in its orchestral confidence. The piece de resistance derives from the encore from the 9 September 1960 concert: fiendishly whirring strings invite Romeo to duel with Tybalt, then Tybalt’s protracted death throes in the form of a march to the scaffold, the very unstringing of all goodwill in Verona. Blazing virtuosity on all counts.
— Gary Lemco