Prokofiev: Classical Symphony
Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony
Yeol Levi, Atlanta Symphony
Solti has the quicksilver touch that yields both a gossamer touch and excitement as he contrasts full sound with delicate passages. Melody lines float lightly, especially in the second movement as the accompaniment prances. The Gavotte is big but buoyant and filigreed. And the Finale is toe-tappingly fleet. This is how a conductor makes a huge Rolls Royce orchestra dance on the head of a pin.
Levi has an even more buoyant touch, especially because the engineering allows you to hear it in a rich, natural ambience that has real presence, as if the sun just came out—the playing is so bright, transparent, and upbeat.
WebTips: In the US, the Decca label used to be called London, which is the name still on some of Solti’s recordings.
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Martha Argerich; Charles Dutoit, Montreal Symphony
“I was blind, but now I see.” How does Argerich hear so much in this work that others simply don’t!? (The same is true for Dutoit.) Every other recording I’ve heard treats this concerto as a percussive showpiece. But here, right from the opening orchestral notes, a contrasting atmosphere is established—moody night dreams of translucent silk. When Argerich enters, it’s with the alertness, intelligence, and dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin agility of a cat. The mix of these two contrasting styles becomes the heart of the first movement. The second movement, which also begins with a silken night mood, becomes magical at the end as Argerich’s quick prancing plays perfectly over the orchestra that harkens back to the moody opening. The last movement at first feels almost too fast until Argerich, keeping the tempo, has just the right light rhythmic weight that lets you know that the Argentine firebrand is perfectly in control. Her amazing spontaneity shows what a true improvisationalist she is, as she unearths countless new ways to turn a phrase here, inflect a few notes there, making the musical line SING—which is quite different from being merely percussive. Engineering is fine if you boost the treble a little.
WebTips: This performance is available as a single EMI CD along with Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 and Bartόk’s Concerto No. 3 for $1 used on Amazon. It’s also available as part of an EMI 4-CD box set called “Martha Argerich Edition—Concertos” for $14 at ArkivMusic.com. Argerich has a different recording of Prokofiev 3 on Deutsche Grammophon made early in her career with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic.
The only recording I’ve been able to access is by Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony on Chandos, and I cannot recommend it.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic
Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony
Following Shostakovich’s two big wartime symphonies, Stalin and his cronies expected a Russian Beethoven’s 9th as World War II ended. Instead they got scathing sarcasm, and does Bernstein pour it on! “Brisk, wicked, biting, relentless, snotty” and “nose-thumbing” are a few of the adjectives that describe his style in the first, third, and fifth movements. The inflections he gives to the two quiet movements make them lanky, laconic, dejected, and terribly sad, like the grumblings of a failing old man remembering the awful past. The last movement feels like Bernstein is constantly accelerating the tempo; in fact, he’s not—instead, it’s the urgency he generates. The engineering and some of the playing sound blatant and crass, but does it ever fit this interpretation!
Levi’s approach, just the opposite, is nothing short of “beautiful.” The orchestra is silken and gorgeous, the engineering is smooth, rich, and embracing. And the bright, light style and dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin precision is exhilarating and embracing, though Levi does loosen his grip a bit in the finale.
WebTips: Both recordings are paired with performances of Shostakovich’s famous Symphony No. 5. Bernstein made two Sony NY Phil recordings; the stunning, legendary 1959 one, recorded in Boston following their Soviet tour, is paired with No. 9 on CDs in both the “Bernstein Century” and “The Royal Edition” Series. Beware of other pairings; some, like the CD paired with Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, use the inferior performance of No. 5 made digitally during a 1979 tour of Japan. Levi’s performance of No. 5 is merely routine.