Prokofiev blockbusters via Baltimore and Brazil
Local audiences have long known Marin Alsop’s special way with Russian music, which has figured prominently in Baltimore Symphony programming throughout her tenure. She is now midway through a project with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra recording a Sergei Prokofiev cycle for Naxos Records. Four of the seven symphonies already have appeared, along with other orchestral pieces.
The São Paulo Symphony was founded 61 years ago and, despite its relative youth among internationally acclaimed orchestras, is a topflight ensemble. Alsop’s regular association with it goes back several seasons and she now serves as its music director. This new recording of two Prokofiev blockbusters, along with a less familiar early piece, suggests that the relationship between Alsop and the orchestra is an extra-ordinarily happy one.
Both of the big pieces on the disc were the result of failures. The Third Symphony is a recycling of music for an opera never staged during Prokofiev’s lifetime and the “Scythian Suite” incorporates music from a ballet written for but ultimately rejected by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. But what hadn’t worked as opera or ballet ultimately succeeded in purely orchestral garb, particularly when swathed in colors as sumptuous and vivid as Prokofiev’s.
“Scythian Suite” uses a huge orchestra with an enormous percussion section to create boisterous and novel effects. Alsop and her musicians seem to love every minute of it, skillfully maintaining the energy of Prokofiev’s mechanistic rhythms without letting them become flatfooted. There’s nothing earthbound about this performance, because the music’s gigantism is consistently held aloft. Imagine the huge balloons of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade bobbing their way along St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect.
If Alsop could be said to have a weakness as a conductor, it might be her tendency on occasion to overconduct, the sort of micromanagement that reins in the musicians rather than letting them ride the musical flow. Thankfully, there’s none of that on this recording.
The Third Symphony’s tortuous musical narrative blossoms naturally and with unambiguous clarity, creating magical textures, deftly captured throughout by producer/ engineer Ulrich Schneider. In the slow movement, one even senses something ak into tender sincerity, a genuine rarity in Prokofiev. The squealing string glissandos of the scherzo are deliciously creepy. The real surprise, however, is “Autumn,” a 1910 symphonic sketch inspired by Sergei Rachmaninoff, which speaks with eloquent simplicity. Prokofiev lovers shouldn’t hesitate. But if you’re not a Prokofiev fan, or don’t know him at all, there is plenty on this compelling disc to whet your appetite for more.
PROKOFIEV: SCYTHIAN SUITE, OP. 2 Autumn — Symphonic Sketch, Op. 8; Symphony, No. 3, Op 44. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos 8.573452