Any recording of Prokofiev's 1944 Fifth Symphony has to compete with the luminous recording made by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1968 which stands head and shoulders above any other ever made. It has never been out of print and is currently available at midprice. Sadly, this live performance by the incredibly talented and charismatic Vladimir Jurowski, recently named music director of the London Philharmonic, and his Russian National Orchestra falls well short of that benchmark. The orchestra itself sounds a bit logy and without bite, not a good thing in this symphony's rather thick orchestration, and Jurowski doesn't help matters by doing some strange things tempo-wise, particularly in the first movement. The exposition starts off well enough but when the second theme comes in Jurowski unaccountably slows w-a-a-y down only to speed up again in unexpected fashion at the end. What's going on here? I have no explanation, but I know it doesn't sound right. Actually after that things get better until the very end of the movement when there another accelerando not indicated in the score. The second movement is, however, fittingly ironic and the third, the adagio, is evocatively intense with emphasis given to the important piano obbligato and to Prokofiev's brilliant use of the tuba. The finale is OK, but not incandescent as it should be. Pentatone's recorded sound may be part of the problem, as it sounds congested in the climactic moments.
The filler on this disc is for me the highlight. I had never heard Prokofiev's 'Ode to the End of the War', written in 1945, although I'd read about it and assumed it was one of those potboiler patriotic things that Soviet composers were obliged to write. However, that assumption was dead wrong. It's a wonderful piece. All the more so because it has the oddest instrumentation -- Prokofiev was a master of unusual instrumental combinations -- and it works. The piece calls for 4 pianos, 8 harps (!), large percussion battery, wind band, and 8 double basses! It is fourteen minutes long, features Prokofiev's trademarked piquant harmonies, lots of very inventive percussion, coruscating writing for the pianos and harps and quite full chorale-like textures for the wind orchestra. It is not all solemn nor it is blindly celebratory; there are even moments of Prokofievian sarcasm. I listened to it three times in a row, marveling at how this piece has come to be all but unknown. Granted its unusual orchestration might make it hard to mount -- after all where are you going to find eight harps? -- but it deserves to be heard.
These are live performances from February 2007 and aside from some occasional soft coughs, the audience noise is minimal.