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CD Spotlight: Prokofiev Orchestral Works

2003 will be remembered in the classical music world as the year of Hector Berlioz. Still, other anniversaries need not go unnoticed. The 50th anniversary of Russian composer Serge Prokofiev's death--which, ironically, came just as his great tormentor Stalin also died--is being marked by two leading Russian conductors in gripping new recordings.

Scythian Suite; Alexander Nevsky
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
Kirov Orchestra & Chorus
Valery Gergiev, conductor

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Valery Gergiev, the high-energy maestro of the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, has received much attention for his visceral interpretations of Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, but as this pairing of the "Scythian Suite" and "Alexander Nevsky" demonstrates, he has an equally strong affinity for Prokofiev's brilliant orchestral scores.

The "Scythian Suite" was originally conceived as a rival ballet with Stravinsky's 1912 masterpiece, "The Rite of Spring," but unable to secure a production, Prokofiev turned it into an orchestral piece. Certainly, it shares some of Stravinsky's primitivist subject matter--the bristling brass chords in "The Adoration of Veles and Ala," the searing march in "The Glorious Departure"--all of which is performed here with much zest.

"Alexander Nevsky" is filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's landmark 1939 tale of Russia thwarting the German invasion of the 13th century, and it was complemented by one of history's great film scores. Prokofiev later fashioned a cantata from the complete score, and its scintillating orchestral colors provide a complement to Eisenstein's subtle mix of light and shadow. This high-energy account, recorded live in Moscow, confirms that the Kirov forces have Prokofiev in their blood. The chorus gives an incisive performance of the Latin texts that portray the chants of the invaders. Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina brings hushed eloquence to the final lament.

Although both of these scores are already well-represented on disc, this recording can be recommended for the Kirov's brilliant brass and dark string sound, coupled with Gergiev's compelling interpretations.

Classical Symphony; Suites: "Romeo and Juliet," "Love for Three Oranges."
St. Petersburg Philharmonic
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor
RCA Red Seal

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While Gergiev reveals Prokofiev at his most aggressive and melancholic, on a new release from RCA, Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov conducts several of the composer's lighter (though hardly lightweight) works.

Lightness is not generally a Russian quality, but a reading of the "Classical" Symphony beautifully captures Prokofiev's dance qualities--fleet phrasing, and vivid primary colors. No less convincing is Temirkanov's way with the suite from "The Love for Three Oranges," which finds the composer at his most wry, angular, and sassy. And the Suite No. 2 from "Romeo and Juliet" captures a wide range of Prokofiev's moods, from the rapturously lyrical balcony scene to some dissonant action in the fighting scenes, and some comedic moments throughout. Here we're reminded that there's much that can go unnoticed in stage productions.

If Temirkanov lacks a bit of Gergiev's intensity and grit, he's nonetheless a master of orchestral detail, always presiding with a deft touch without losing sight of the music's architectural qualities. The St. Petersburg musicians play this music as if by birthright. Together, these two recordings offer a perfect "basic library" Prokofiev collection.