Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5; Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)

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COMPOSERS: Prokofiev
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
PERFORMER: New York PO/Kurt Masur
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-96301-2
Masur spent the greater part of his life within the Cold War Soviet bloc. He brings something of that dark experience to this performance of the Fifth Symphony (taken from 1994 concerts in Avery Fisher Hall). Benefiting from his years as director of the Berlin Komische Oper and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, it’s a reading of symphonic tension and sardonic theatre, a muscular journey if perhaps at times (notably the Adagio) more to do with a Brahmsian sorrow of the soul than any particular ‘grandeur of the human spirit’ (Prokofiev’s intention). In contrast with Bernstein’s emotionalism, or the high drama of an extraordinary happening I once caught from Celibidache in Hong Kong, Masur holds everything in tight check, preoccupied less with histrionics than beautiful lines and sounds, with a power and menace more under the surface than overt. The New York Philharmonic gives him a consummate response – suave velvet strings, spotlit woodwinds, snarling brass, precision percussion. In the Romeo and Juliet excerpts (recorded in September 1996, following the orchestra’s European tour and Prom appearances) the emphasis is on poetry and elegant cameo, colour and exquisite phrasing. The New Yorkers thrive on such virtuoso music: in the big moments (‘Montagues and Capulets’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Tybalt’s Death’) Masur does nothing to throttle back, yet they leave him with plenty in reserve. It’s all very impressive: the genuine 24-carat transatlantic article, shaped by middle-European sensibility, ghosted by Kremlin shadows. Ates Orga