Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Romeo and Juliet, excerpts. Kurt Masur, New York Philharmonic. Warner Classics 2564 67941-2.

Since Warner Classics bought Teldec some years ago, they have been reissuing many of Teldec's older recordings. Such is the case with this 2010 Warner reissue of a Kurt Masur disc that Teldec made in 1994 and 1996 and released in 1997. The time frame was about in the middle of Masur's somewhat contentious tenure with the New York Philharmonic, a relationship that lasted from 1991-2002, and the disc underscores some of the man's best and worst qualities as the orchestra's conductor.

Let's start on a positive note with the best the album has to offer, excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote this ballet as a commission from the Kirov Theater, premiering it in 1938. Based on Shakespeare's play, it remains one of the composer's most-popular pieces of music. On this recording, Masur gives us about twenty-six minutes from the complete score, highlighting the most familiar territory of the Bard's story.

In Romeo and Juliet Masur creates power and intensity from the opening bars. Things begin with the introduction to "The Montegues and Capulets," the warring families in old Verona, with the conductor making the scene appropriately abrasive and belligerent. Then we get "Juliet as a Young Girl," which Masur handles most delicately. The conductor presents "Masks," from the party sequence, playfully, and we can easily imagine Romeo and his friends obviously clowning around. Next comes the centerpiece, the ultraromantic "Romeo and Juliet." It's the longest and most-touching music in the ballet, even if it doesn't have the dramatic flair Tchaikovsky gave it in his famous overture. Still, it's close enough, and Masur handles it with subtlety.

The music closes with "Tybalt's Death," followed by the scene at "Romeo and Juliet's Grave." Here, Masur takes us from the action and excitement of the duel in the streets to the tragedy of the young couple's death. Perhaps the fight could have used a bit more adrenaline, but it's certainly colorful. And, saving the best for last, the final scene is as heartbreaking as Shakespeare and Prokofiev intended. OK, while I continue to prefer the complete recordings with Previn and LSO (EMI) and Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca), and the excerpts alone on an audiophile disc with Leinsdorf and the L.A. Philharmonic (Sheffield), Masur does manage to keep pace.

However, there is always the negative side to the album. Next to Prokofiev's First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, 1944, is probably the most well liked of his seven symphonies. Yet under Masur it sounds somewhat dry and pedestrian. The composer called the work "a symphony about the spirit of man," his response to the turmoil of World War II. As such it opens with the anguish of that nightmare. Only Masur presents it so matter-of-factly, it loses some of the pain it should represent. Nor does Masur seem fully to capture the sarcasm of the rhythmic second-movement Allegro. The long, brooding Adagio shows what the conductor is capable of and does display some degree of emotional intensity. However, the concluding movement, which should end the piece in triumph, comes off too pat and, consequently, too shallow. As a result, it's hard to say the music ever moved me.

As for the sound, the best selections on the disc come in the Romeo and Juliet excerpts, studio recordings from 1996. Still, the sound is not great. Although the dynamics are excellent and the bass strong and deep, the treble is a tad too edgy for my taste; and although the midrange response is adequate, the highs and lows on both sides tend to overshadow it. Teldec recorded the Symphony No. 5 live in 1994, and it is even less successful than the Romeo and Juliet tracks, with a number of audience noises in the background and the orchestra miked too closely. In addition, not only is the sound too up-front, it's slightly harsh. Perhaps the engineers felt this suited the tone of the music; I don't know. I didn't enjoy it.

Furthermore, the CD's minimalist presentation didn't impress me, either, with no pictures anywhere, virtually no color, and no booklet notes. Well, at least Warners offer the disc at mid price, and various Web sites discount it considerably.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa