Album review: Engaging Prokofiev and uneven Tchaikovsky from Philharmonia and Rouvali

Chief Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting Philharmonia in the Royal Festival Hall in Octorber 2020. © Belinda Lawley

Setting the course for the future, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chief Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali have launched their joint recording career on Signum Classics. The two new albums provide us with gorgeous orchestral performances and ever-inspired music-making, a key feature of Rouvali’s work.

Throughout his eight-year tenure with the Tampere Philharmonic (so far), Rouvali’s performances have been rooted in joyful energy and delightful teamwork, often resulting in uplifting outings for seasoned classics and new discoveries alike. Although I have not always shared his views on some of the repertoire, evenings with Rouvali at the Tampere Hall have always been the most entertaining affairs, as they presumably will be in the Royal Festival Hall too.

On their first Signum album back in 2009, Philharmonia and Chief Conductor & Artistic Advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen opened their discography with a blast by releasing a dazzling take on Arnold Schoenberg’s vast cantata Gurrelieder (1900-11) on a two-SACD set. In comparison, the new Rouvali discs are somewhat less ambitious in their programming, featuring a forty-five-minute series of excerpts from Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovski’s Swan Lake (1875-77) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, op. 100 (1944), both recorded at the orchestra’s Royal Festival Hall home.

Of the two discs, the Prokofiev symphony, recorded just a week-or-so before the first lockdown of 2020, is perhaps the more thoroughly convincing one. Written in one month during the summer of 1944, Prokofiev’s war symphony is the result of newly-found optimism, inspired by the turning of the tide in the war. Incidentally, that same optimism was also invigorating Igor Stravinsky’s symphonic endeavours in faraway Hollywood, manifesting itself in Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45).

Composed fourteen years after his previous symphony, Prokofiev’s Fifth marked the onset of his symphonic maturity that would produce his two masterpieces of the genre, Sixth Symphony in E flat minor, op. 111 (1945-47) and Seveth Symphony in C sharp minor, op. 131 (1952). In itself, the forty-five-minute Fifth Symphony is a compelling testament of the era, an almost cinematic score, clad in magnificent orchestral garb.

Cast in four movements, the symphony opens with a majestic andante in fully-fledged sonata form. The first movement is followed by a vehement toccata-scherzo and a slow movement merging dreams and nightmares into a gripping nocturnal vision. The allegro giocoso finale sets the music on a stormy trajectory, boosting the symphony to its almost chaotic close.

The symphony’s discography is staggeringly expansive, with several notable entries and great many less memorable ones caught on disc since the terrific 1946 first recording by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including a ravishing 1959 take by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, to point out just one marvellous example.

Perhaps due to the extensive back catalogue, the symphony has not been that frequently recorded in recent years. Thus new takes on the score are indeed welcome, especially as invigorating ones as the live performance Rouvali and the Philharmonia deliver on the Signum album.

Naturally each new recording of the symphony falls, somewhat unfairly, under the shadow of those venerable classics from the past decades. While the performance recorded here may not quite match the immaculate symphonic arch devised by Szell with his Cleveland players, the combination of wildness and sonic majesty of the Philharmonia and Rouvali is tremendously engaging. The fascinating combination of warmth and translucency is a shared virtue between the two recordings, although it should be noted that in Szell’s case, some of the studio magic results from the conductor’s slight rescoring here and there, whereas Rouvali’s live take presents the score as is. The slow movement in particular comes off with astonishing glow, yielding to an instantly memorable and profoundly moving aural experience.

Reassured by repeated listening sessions, I would imagine that the Philharmonia and Rouvali recoding will appear in critics’ choices over the years to come. Well served on disc by the Signum team, the live performance is endorsed by focused engineering and spacious overall sound.

The Swan Lake excerpts disc, however, is more uneven entity. I would imagine that Rouvali’s enthusiastic conducting and Philharmonia’s committed performance have had an appealing effect on the Royal Festival Hall live audience back in the fall of 2019. On disc, some of the excerpts are indeed quite electrifying, while others would perhaps have benefitted from a more subtle approach. Thus, the Swan Lake album does not quite match the assuredness of the Prokofiev disc.

The excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet score, including nos. 2 (Valse), 4 (Pas de trois), 8 (Dance of the goblets), 10 (Scene), 13 (Dance of the cygnets), 18 (Scene), 19 (Pas de six), 19b (Pas de deux), 22 (Spanish dance), 23 (Neapolitan dance)and 29 (Finale), do make a good pick, although the ’highlights’ concept might seem quaint to some listeners. With the benefit of repeated hearings, I found my thoughts and impressions oscillating from one go to another. Still, I quite like the spontaneity of it. There’s no playing it safe with Rouvali, which in itself is always more than welcome.

As far as engineering goes, the Swan Lake disc is a well produced (and post-produced) album. The Philharmonia sounds marvellous as ever, clad in admirable sonic clarity.

Keeping in mind their wonderful webstream from October, featuring a splendid American programme of Copland, Price, Reich and Stravinsky, there’s a lot to expect from the Philharmonia and Rouvali collaboration. Hopefully some of their more adventurous programming will end up among the recorded endeavours as well.

Phiharmonia Orchestra

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, conductor

Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovski: Excerpts from Swan Lake, op. 20 (1875-77)

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, op. 100 (1944)

Recorded in the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London on 3 November 2019 (Tchaikovsky) and 9 February 2020 (Prokofiev)

Signum Classics SIGCD648 (2020) and SIGCDCD669 (2021)

© Jari Kallio

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