Prokofiev

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COMPOSERS: Prokofiev
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Scythian Suite; Autumnal Sketch; Symphony No. 3
PERFORMER: São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.573452

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This is a curious yet potentially effective programme. Two of Prokofiev’s most ferocious scores – Scythian Suite and the Third Symphony, drawn from his opera on medieval necromancy, The Fiery Angel – sandwich one of his most introverted and poignant – Autumnal Sketch, a brief yet potently atmospheric work originally completed shortly after his father’s death. Too often the Scythian Suite has appeared a poor imitation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Marin Alsop avoids this by bringing out its more unique qualities, particularly its subdued and delicately scored passages: in the first movement, after a riotous opening – here a boisterous jamboree rather than the usual thuggish chant – Alsop uses an especially slow tempo to create a hypnotic ambiance for its quieter music, the bell-like ostinatos combined with flute more reminiscent of Javanese gamelan than of the prehistoric middle eastern tribes ostensibly the score’s subject.

Less successful is the third movement, ‘Night’, where Alsop’s over-meticulous and deliberate delineation of its textures effectively dissipates its atmosphere. Similarly in Autumnal Sketch, sonorities are too clearly defined and asserted for the music to be at all evocative; rather than a tapestry of fleeting impressions (such as Vladimir Ashkenazy creates in his Decca recording), the result sounds merely disjointed. In the Symphony, Alsop’s disciplined marshalling of instrumental lines works wonders with the finale, making it sound exuberant rather than merely noisy. Alas, that very quality exorcises the demonic quality of the first and second movements, though the eerie third movement scherzo, simultaneously gambolling and shrieking, works most effectively.

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Daniel Jaffé