Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)
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.
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.