Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Suite; Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Paavo Jarvi, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Telarc SACD-60683.

Maybe I'm just getting used to Maestro Paavo Jarvi. When I first heard his music making, he seemed a bit too buttoned-up for me, too conservative, too ordinary. But in the last few years, he seems to be loosening up and allowing himself more individual expression. Either that or I'm just adjusting to his style. I dunno. His Prokofiev album is one of the best things to date from him, and in particular one of the most invigorating performances of Lieutenant Kije I've heard.

Things begin, though, with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, a work the composer wrote while living in the U.S.S.R. in 1944. Although it was toward the end of World War II, the symphony is not a "War" piece as such. In fact, it is relatively lightweight, no Shostakovich here. It's so modest, lyrical, and accessible, in fact, that it was one of the few works of the time the Soviet government never condemned as dissonant or corrupt. Jarvi is rather leisurely in the first movement, but he warms up to the Scherzo and handles the slow Adagio with charm and sophistication. It may not be the absolute best reading of the Symphony available, but it's close enough.

However, it's the in the Lieutenant Kije Suite that Jarvi shines. The composer wrote it after returning to his homeland from Paris in the early 1930s. Kije is a comic satire, written for a movie and poking good-natured fun at a nineteenth-century Czar whom everyone is eager to please. Apparently, the music was populist enough that the Soviet censors could get behind it, and, indeed, it has lasted as one of Prokofiev's most endearing works. Jarvi makes the most of its colorful rhythms and jaunty escapades to keep one entertained for the duration. It may not have all the charm or easygoing smoothness of Previn's accounts, but it more than makes up for it in vitality. Yet don't expect the performance to be overly fast or nerve-wracking. It isn't. Some of it even seems a mite sluggish. Just don't despair; it's all a part of Jarvi's overall plan for the Suite, and, as I say, it works.

Telarc's sound works, too. They have issued the music on two separate discs, a straight stereo CD version and an SACD hybrid that contains the regular two-channel stereo version, an SACD stereo version, and an SACD multichannel version on different layers. Of course, you will need an SACD player to access the SACD layers, and for multichannel fanciers it may be worth it. Telarc sent me both discs, so I listened to and compared the regular and SACD stereo formats side by side in two players. I confess I could hear little difference, perhaps a shade more dynamic range and clarity from the SACD. But this is of small importance because they both sound good--excellent depth, excellent stage spread, excellent impact, excellent frequency extension, and excellent bass. Perhaps the midrange wants a little something in ultimate transparency, but that's about it. The sonics round out a fine set of interpretations.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa