Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. HDTT HDCD354.

Let me admit up front that I have never been the biggest fan of Herbert von Karajan except in grand opera, where I think he excelled. Indeed, it often seemed to me that the maestro wanted to turn everything into grand opera, glamorizing much of the music he performed whether it needed it or not. Still, this was only a personal reaction to a conductor who was enormously popular, and the opinion does not apply to everything the man conducted. Certainly, that's the case with his 1968 recording of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony for DG, which, in fact, is among the finest in the catalogue. Therefore, it comes as a treat to find that the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered and reissued it in better sound than I have ever heard from this recording.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-53) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100, in 1944, near the end of the Second World War. Next to his First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony is probably his most well liked. The composer called the piece "a symphony about the spirit of man," his response to the turmoil of the War. Accordingly, 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. Karajan sounds at his most engaged with this music, perhaps as a result of his own wartime experiences with Berlin orchestras of the day. He creates a growing sense of menace throughout the first movement, yet tinged with a lyrical grace, and he benefits from one of the truly great ensembles at his disposal in the Berlin Philharmonic, which sounds as glorious as ever.

A scherzo (Allegro marcato) follows, which lightens the mood a bit. I've read that the composer had initially intended this music for his Romeo and Juliet ballet, and you can feel a similar spirit present. Anyway, Karajan maintains a vigorous pace here, providing increasing tensions with the force of the dance-like rhythms.

Then, there is a long, brooding third-movement Adagio. Like the opening movement but a touch slower, it is quite lyrical, but it builds in strength and vigor as it goes along, with Karajan always in firm control. In fact, this may be Karajan's finest hour as he leads the music with no unwarranted excitement or exaggeration. He allows the music to speak for itself, which it does quite eloquently.

Herbert von Karajan
The final Allegro giocoso (brisk and merry, playful) brings the symphony to a joyful, if somewhat ironic, perhaps enigmatic, close. This finale kind of sums up everything that went before: the lyricism, the forward-pulsating rhythms, even a quotation from the first movement, with Karajan stringing them all together smoothly and convincingly.

DG originally recorded the music in 1968, and HDTT transferred it from a 4-track tape in 2015. The remastering adds some weight to the sound, a bit more dynamic contrast, and a little less glare. There remains a very slight upper midrange forwardness, a mild brightness that nevertheless adds to the overall clarity of the recording and is seldom hard or edgy. There is a fine sense of depth to the orchestra, too, with a wide but not inflated stereo width. Deepest bass might still be a tad short, but one hardly notices it unless one compares it, say, to Telarc's Paavo Jarvi release, which is a little more robust at the low end, if a little less revealing than the HDTT in the mids. Overall, this Karajan recording is quite good in its new, remastered incarnation and rivals most of its competitors for sound.

I suppose the one drawback you could find with this HDTT release is that, like the original LP, it contains only the one symphony. After all, you can still find several different DG compact disc configurations that couple the symphony with either Karajan's recording of Prokofiev's First Symphony or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. So, the question becomes a matter of sound. How much are you willing to pay for the better sound of the HDTT remaster? That, of course, is up to you.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), discs, downloads, and prices, you can visit their Web site at


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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