Prokofiev Symphony No 6; Waltz Suite

Author: 
Robert Layton
PROKOFIEV Symphony No 6; Waltz Suite

Prokofiev Symphony No 6; Waltz Suite

  • Symphony No. 6
  • Waltz Suite, In the Palace (Cinderella)
  • Waltz Suite, New Year's Eve Ball (War and Peace)
  • Waltz Suite, Happiness (Cinderella)

An outstanding recording of a hardly less impressive performance. Though it lags far behind the Fifth in popularity, the Sixth Symphony goes much deeper than any of its companions: indeed, it is surely the greatest of the Prokofiev symphonies. After a few years of neglect it is good to note its return to concert and radio programmes, even if it maintains a much lower profile than its immediate neighbours. Right from the pioneering recording by Ansermet and the Suisse Romande (Decca mono LXT2667, 5/52), it has fared well on LP. The Ansermet remained in the catalogue throughout the 1950s, though its successor—Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic (Artia mono ALP158, 11/60)—enjoyed a very brief but none the less memorable reign. (His 1960 Royal Festival Hall account of it will not be forgotten by anyone who was there.) Others followed from Ormandy, Leinsdorf, Martinon, Rozhdestvensky and Walter Weller, but none has enjoyed longer currency than the Ansermet.
However, with the deletion of the Rozhdestvensky (HMV SLS844, 5/73) and the superbly-recorded but under-characterized Weller account on Decca (SXL6777, 9/76), the symphony is no longer represented in the current Gramophone Classical Catalogue. Be that as it may, this newcomer from Neeme Jarvi and the SNO would be a first recommendation even if all these rivals were in circulation. Of course, the orchestral playing in itself is not in the same league as the Leningrad Philharmonic for Mravinsky or the Boston Symphony for Leinsdorf (RCA SB6662, 4/66), but there is no want of commitment and the Chandos recordings is wonderfully vivid and present, and a worthy successor to their Gramophone Award-winning Bax Fourth Symphony (ABRD1091, 1/84).
Neeme Jarvi has an instinctive grasp and deep understanding of this symphony, and shapes its detail as skilfully as he does its architecture as a whole. The various climaxes are expertly built and related to each other, and the whole structure is held together in a way that recalls the most distinguished precedents. So far as detail is concerned, take the second group of the first movement whose phrases breathe most imaginatively: indeed, not even Mravinsky extracted so much meaning from them (the wind of the SNO distinguish themselves here). Yet he does not attempt to coax more from this sad, chaste, wistful chant-like idea than is there. The wind also sing out with great feeling in the slow movement and I was particularly impressed by the final appearance of their passionate chorus (fig. 57). At times, I must admit, one longs for greater sonority from the strings, who sound distinctly lean at the top and wanting in body and weight in the middle and lower registers, even in quieter passages. (Compare the sonority of the SNO cellos and double-basses plus bassoon at fig. 15 or of the violas plus cor anglais at fig. 18 with that of the Leningrad or Boston orchestras and you will see what I mean.) It may seem churlish to say this when in all other respects the orchestra rises so magnificently to the challenges of this score and is obviously playing with such commitment. The opening of the finale strains them a little, as do the violin semiquavers at fig. 13 in the first movement. Yet Jarvi secures a marvellous response from all his players when the second group of the first movement is recalled at the end (fig. 113). In fact, these artists have the measure of its tragic poignancy more than almost any of their predecessors on record.
A word about the balance: it has the distinct merit of sounding well blended and in good perspective at whatever dynamic level you choose to play it. If you want the impact of a forward place in the concert hall, a high-level setting does not disturb the effect of over-all naturalness and warmth. The bass is particularly rich, finely detailed and powerful. I would have preferred a more substantial fill-up than the three movements of the Waltz Suite, Op. 110. The early Sinfonietta, or better still, the Divertimento, Op. 43, which has not been recorded since the mid-1950s, would have been more welcome. The suite, as its title implies, is a set of waltzes drawn and adapted from various stage works: Nos. 1 and 6 come from Cinderella and No. 5 from War and Peace. They are certainly played with elegance and style. Collectors can invest in this record with confidence: the surfaces are totally silent. I would add that I await the CD with the keenest anticipation.'

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