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 http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.

JJP

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

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa