Prokofiev Symphonies/Leinsdorf

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.44
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Erich Leinsdorf

All recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston – 28 October 1963 (Symphony No.5), 23-24 April 1965 (No.6), 25 April 1966 (No.3), and 28 March 1968

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: October 2005
CD No: TESTAMENT SBT 1395 [Symphonies 2 & 6]
Duration: 75 minutes [Symphonies 2 & 6]
79 minutes

For a Western orchestra to record any of Prokofiev’s symphonies other than the First or Fifth was a relatively unusual event in the 1960s, and it’s good to have Erich Leinsdorf’s readings, long out of circulation, on CD for the first time (except No.5). With these releases Testament completes the restoration of the majority of Leinsdorf’s Prokofiev recordings with the Bostonians, although the Scythian Suite and Sinfonia concertante remain outstanding.

The Second Symphony retains its power to shock, especially in a lithe recording such as this, and for a work that boasts a greater dynamic range than most of its contemporaries, re-mastering will have been quite a challenge. By and large the sound is very good, with little to no distortion, yet a taut, grainy sound.

As an interpretation Leinsdorf’s Second has some extremely fine moments. Often a cacophony of sound, the first movement gains much from his meticulous approach, picking out the melodic instruments wherever possible but securing much impressive detail elsewhere. Of particular note is the infamous double bass passage some four minutes in, the ensemble tight, the texture impressively full bodied. The following Theme and Variations movement is a homage to Beethoven’s C minor Piano Sonata, Op.111, and Leinsdorf paces the music just right, mysterious at the beginning yet with great clarity brought to the potentially congested textures of the second variation, and the busy chatter of the fifth one brings out parallels with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, then the sixth brings the solitary tuning discrepancy of the performance, between trumpet and tuba. To complete a disciplined yet passionate reading, Leinsdorf makes the most of the final variation’s ghostly pizzicato, ushering in the theme once more in a wonderful moment of disconcerting calm.

The Sixth Symphony remains little played in the concert hall, puzzling given that it contains some of the most accomplished and personal music Prokofiev ever composed. Here it receives an extremely good performance, often weighted in favour of brass and woodwind and, as a result, darkly coloured, and here cast in a more reverberant sound-picture, which suits the expansive second theme of the first movement, which as always leaves a lasting impression. With nicely pointed solos, Leinsdorf anticipates this theme’s exposition perfectly, just as its recapitulation sees some truly disconcerting brass chords from the ten-minute mark onwards.

The anguished second movement begins at a slightly ponderous pace, but Leinsdorf successfully captures the yearning of its most memorable theme, not to mention the exotic harmonic progression that goes with it. Meanwhile the Boston Symphony makes much of the sunny disposition of the finale, though the strings’ scurrying opening sounds a little stretched. However, uncertainty reigns from the reappearance of the first movement material, from which point Leinsdorf leads the work to a blazing yet markedly affected conclusion.

The second CD again intelligently couples a high-volume symphony (the Third) with a more obviously tuneful model, the popular Fifth.

Leinsdorf’s Third stands up well in competition with its contemporaneous rival, Claudio Abbado’s 1969 recording for Decca with the LSO. As in his reading of the Second, Leinsdorf reveals much of the music’s inner workings, making more sense than anyone does of the lead-in to the first movement’s close. Yet when the score calls for full-bodied orchestral swooning, the “Fiery Angel” material revealed, conductor and orchestra are more than equal to the task: take the opening, an orchestral rush of gigantic proportions, soaring violins just about keeping to their high register notes. After securing a real sense of unease in the deliberate tread of the unison harp notes in the Andante, Leinsdorf leads a furiously paced scherzo, violins right on the button, yielding to a deliberate yet effective progression as its final, tonic-note looms. The tricky finale fares well too, a truly gutsy, emphatic blast at the end. This is a difficult work to bring off convincingly on record, yet this version is arguably the most successful.

For the Fifth, Leinsdorf avoids the temptation of over-Romanticising, and in this he is helped by the slightly shrill brass sound, coupled with wiry-sounding strings. Nor is he afraid to ‘up’ the percussion where appropriate; sharp reports ring out from the snare drum in an especially spiky rendition of the scherzo, the tempo spot-on and the build from the trio back to the scherzo expertly done. A spacious first movement threatens to slow down a touch too often, but the music manages to keep moving with resourceful tread, Prokofiev’s melodic invention laid bare. This is also true of the sensitive slow movement, taken at a leisurely pace but taking care register rumblings in the bass. Meanwhile the exuberance of the finale suffers a touch from dropouts in the timpani, presumably present in the initial recording. The final bars whiz by, the rush of the last scales successfully executed.

Each of these four performances has much to commend it, with the Second and Third in particular strong cases as primary recommendations. The reissues also serve important scholarly value, offering as they do a valuable insight into Prokofiev performance history.

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