Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, The Year 1941. Marin Alsop, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573029.

After listening for years to Marin Alsop’s recordings with the Baltimore Symphony, it came as a pleasant experience to hear her also as the Principal Conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, or OSESP). She took over the Brazilian orchestra on a five-year contract starting in 2012, and I believe this is her first recording with the group and the first recording in a complete cycle of Prokofiev symphonies she plans for Naxos.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-53) wrote the fifth of his seven symphonies in 1944, near the end of World War II. Next to his First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony is probably the most well liked of the bunch. The composer called the work “a symphony about the spirit of man,” his response to the turmoil of the War. As such it opens with the pain of that nightmare, a kind of prelude to the peace to come. By 1944 the Soviets could see an end to the War, and a relatively restrained opening Andante builds slowly, seriously and grandly, Ms. Alsop developing it with a gentle yet firm hand.

A Scherzo follows, which lightens the climate considerably. You can tell the composer initially intended the music for his Romeo and Juliet ballet; you can feel the same spirit present. Ms. Alsop handles it particularly well, especially the surging, constantly shifting rhythms.

Ms. Alsop’s high point, however, is the long, brooding third-movement Adagio, with its purely lyrical elements. Here, she brings out the delicate ballet-like qualities of the music. Although she takes most of the symphony at a fairly relaxed pace, she actually advances the argument of the Adagio at a greater intensity than we normally hear. It easily sustains one’s interest at a high level.

The finale should bring the symphony to a joyful close, and Ms. Alsop accomplishes this end in good measure. Her interpretation is passionate, melodious, and triumphant, carrying the piece to a fitting conclusion that I found quite satisfying.

Coupled with the Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev’s symphonic suite The Year 1941 makes an apt companion. The composer wrote it in response to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, so what we get in the disc’s two works is music about the early part and the winding down of the War. However, Soviet censors didn’t much care for the tone of The Year 1941 (not finding it momentous enough); Soviet critics didn’t much like the music, either; and Soviet audiences didn’t much respond to it. There are moments within it, true, that seem to border on satire, but one cannot deny the work’s overall honest significance. I’ve always rather liked its various blustery war moods, and I particularly like the vigorous way Ms. Alsop responds to them.

Naxos recorded the music at the Sala Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2011. Moderately distanced, the sound has a good deal of orchestral depth involved, if not so wide a left-to-right stereo spread. Still, it’s quite impressive in a realistic sort of way. While there are some good, strong outbursts from time to time, most of the dynamics seem a trifle subdued, the midrange a tad veiled, and the high end a bit muted. This might be the result of the miking, too. In any case, the sound is distinctly of the concert-hall variety rather than overtly “hi-fi.”


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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 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.
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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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