Recording of the Week Tugan Sokhiev conducts music by Prokofiev
A double bill of Prokofiev pieces this week, with a new disc from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Tugan Sokhiev. To start with we have the Fifth Symphony, and what a treat it is: the first few bars exemplify everything that I liked about this recording: woodwind playing that is sensitive in places and yet cheeky and raucous when required, glowingly effulgent string playing, and some excellent brass contributions with a pleasingly menacing presence and plenty of bite in the trombones and tuba.
Furthermore, everything is rhythmically crisp and precise, never sloppy, with scrupulous attention paid, for example, to the difference between quaver and semiquaver upbeats. This for me is a testament to the care that Sokhiev takes with his preparation: he is always diligent when balancing the orchestral textures, so crucial in a piece like this where there are countless delicate touches of orchestration that need to be heard. Even in the densest of passages I could hear everything coming through: from the gentlest of harp chords to the wealth of detail in the string parts it was all present and correct. Speaking of the strings, I was extremely impressed by their playing, not least the violas, who are given plenty of fiendish passagework by Prokofiev, all despatched seemingly effortlessly and immaculately, and when they aren't running around all over the place with bars of demisemiquavers, they perform with a beautifully silky sound, full of tone and a great range of colours. It's a fantastically exciting, dramatic performance that is most impressive throughout.
Also on the disc is the Scythian Suite, a much earlier piece which I'll venture to suggest is not so well-known as the symphony. Aged 24, Prokofiev was commissioned by Diaghilev to write a piece for the Ballets Russes in Paris, based on a combination of Scythian and Slavic myths depicting an invocation and sacrifice to the wood nymph Ala, and the attempts by the Evil God Chuzhbog to abduct her. Chuzhbog is ultimately defeated, and Ala saved, by the hero, Lolli, with a bit of help from the Sun God Veles (Ala's father).
When Prokofiev played sections of the score to various people, however, it was felt that stylistically it was too similar to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and so after the ballet was abandoned Prokofiev decided to fashion a suite from the rejected music. The first time I listened to it, the Rite connection definitely struck me, with little moments that reminded me very much of Stravinsky, not least the third movement, Night (in which a wounded Ala is consoled by the Moon Maidens), which with its use of shimmering strings, harps, and celeste, alongside some twistingly chromatic woodwind writing, certainly put me in mind of parts of The Firebird.
The second movement, entitled The Enemy of God and the Dance of the Black Spirits, is a pounding, thrusting beast of a piece, which to me anticipates music from a gladiator film or one of those old Hollywood Biblical epics, sounding like a cross between Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain and Miklós Rózsa's score for Ben-Hur! As in the symphony, the playing is so good and Sokhiev's conducting is so attentive that even in the loudest of climaxes you can hear everything, not least the very end of the piece where even through the huge throng of brass and percussion you can still make out the woodwind figurations. It's a great performance from all concerned, and certainly sits very well indeed alongside a marvellous account of the symphony.
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Tugan Sokhiev
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