Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 5 (HQ SACD review)

Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sydney Symphony. Exton HQ SACD EXCL-00042.

Pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony impressed me greatly with their Exton recording of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, so there was no reason to suspect anything less from their recording of the composer's two most-popular symphonies. Neither the conductor nor the orchestra disappointed me.

Russian composer, conductor, and pianist Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his Symphony No. 1 "Classical" in 1917 and premiered it in 1918, just before he left Russia for America, fearing his music was too radical for the new Bolshevik regime. He called it his "Classical Symphony" because he said he based it loosely on the style on Joseph Haydn, though with modern touches.

Judging by the number of current recordings, it looks as though the First Symphony just edges out the Fifth by a nose. But I gave up counting the various recordings after the first few hundred listed. In any case, audiences love both works, and with the First, one can easily tell why.

In the Symphony No. 1 Ashkenazy gives us a rather zippy account of the first movement; it's a lively, cheerful work, and that's the way the conductor sees it. The classicism of the symphony was also probably Prokofiev's way of rebelling against the overt Romanticism of the previous century and getting back to simpler models. Ashkenazy seems to have the most fun with the third-movement Gavotte, a dance form that even predates Haydn. Then the conductor leads us on a merry chase through the Finale, one worthy of a Warner Bros. Road Runner cartoon. Ashkenazy understands that Prokofiev was being playful in this music and accords it appropriate care. The performance hasn't quite the grace or charm of Sir Neville Marriner's old Decca-Argo recording with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; still it's fun.

As I say, next to his First Symphony, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, from 1944, is one the public probably likes second best of his seven symphonies. It's about as opposite the "Classical Symphony" as possible in tone, although there continue to be similarities. The composer wrote the Fifth while he was living back in the U.S.S.R., yet even though it was toward the end of World War II, the symphony is not a "War" piece in the sense of a Shostakovich symphony. In fact, Prokofiev made sure his symphony sounded rather modest and lyrical, making it not only accessible but one of the few works of the time the Soviet government never condemned as dissonant or corrupt. This, of course, Prokofiev intended as an irony.

Prokofiev later wrote that in the Fifth Symphony he "wanted to sing of the free, happy man, his mighty power, his chivalry and his purity of spirit," all of which he meant both seriously and as a sarcasm directed toward the repressionist Stalin regime. Ashkenazy provides the work with a dark shadow hanging over much of it, which seems only right and fitting.

Anyway, the composer called the piece his response to the turmoil of World War II.  As such, it opens with the anguish of that nightmare, followed by a caustic second-movement Allegro, with hints of his Romeo and Juliet, in which the conductor maintains the composer's rhythmic lift enthusiastically. The long, slow Adagio demonstrates a brooding intensity, with Ashkenazy imparting an proper dynamic thrust; and the concluding movement ends the work in a kind of mock triumph. Both the sound and the performance reminded me of Paavo Jarvi's account with the Cincinnati Symphony on Telarc, and choice between those two, at least, might come down to the different couplings.

Recorded "live and in session" in 2009 and transferred to a hybrid HQ CD/SACD, the sound appears fairly close, yet without losing too much depth or hall ambience in the two-channel SACD layer I listened to. There is a fine, warm clarity throughout, good transient impact, and a wide stereo spread. There is also a goodly amount of separation among the instruments without the recording seeming compartmentalized or over-miked. Nevertheless, despite the closeness of the microphones, the sound is never bright, hard, or edgy, either, making for a most-relaxed and realistic presentation.


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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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa