Alsop Starts Prokofiev Cycle with Symphony No. 5

One of Prokofiev’s most popular symphonies kicks off this first installment of a new symphonic cycle. The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and their new principal conductor Marin Alsop provide an interesting program by coupling the work with the symphonic suite “The Year 1941.”

“The Year 1941” was written during World War II, and articulates Prokofiev’s first-hand impressions of the struggle. The first movement, “In the Struggle,” sounded a little too subdued to me. The orchestra hit all the marks, but there didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency — just a bustling of rapid motifs being tossed back and forth. The second movement, “In the Night,” and the third, “For the Brotherhood of Man,” fared better. Alsop and the orchestra seemed to have a greater affinity for their lyrical (and in the case of the third hymn-like) nature. In fact, the finale sounded rapturous and almost worth the price of admission alone.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the music, but to my ears Symphony No. 5 was a much more successful performance. It’s a decidedly more lyrical work, and the smoothness of the slower sections showed off the ensemble to good effect. Alsop’s vision of the symphony is a valid one, and she makes the case for it by the way she has the orchestra articulate the various sections and shifting moods. There’s a clear sense of direction here, and while my overall impression is that this is a (relatively) mellow reading, it’s certainly one that makes musical sense.

The Sao Paulo Symphony has a very warm ensemble sound, yet they can be strident and spiky when they need to be. I’m looking forward to the other volumes in this series.

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No.5; The Year 1941
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor

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