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Prokofiev: An Also-Ran Gets His Due

July 24, 1994|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Pity poor Prokofiev. His death, which should have made at least the bottom of Page 1 on newspapers worldwide, was barely--and belatedly--acknowledged, both in the Soviet Union and in the West. He had the bad fortune to die on the same day, March 5, 1953, as Josef Stalin.

Then, in 1991, when the world should have been honoring his centennial, Sergei Prokofiev's thunder was stolen again--this time by a fellow composer, Mozart, whose bicentennial was getting all the attention.

Withal, Prokofiev's time seems to have come: the time of his acceptance as a repertory composer rather than as the occasional visitor. His music has made extraordinary inroads on orchestral subscription concerts, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's upcoming season attests; his chamber and solo piano music is widely performed, and even his operas are getting the occasional hearing. "Alexander Nevsky" has become perhaps the most widely performed of 20th-Century choral works.

Hardly a month goes by when there isn't a worthwhile recording of his music.

Among the reissues is a stunning set of 1960s performances by Itzhak Perlman: the two Sonatas for violin and piano, with Vladimir Ashkenazy, and the Second Violin Concerto, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony (RCA Victor Gold Seal 61454).

This is, of course, young Itzhak: prime examples of the talent and artistry that left audiences delighted and awed by his technical skill, musicianship and, not least, his obvious pleasure in making music.

The partnership with Ashkenazy strikes sparks from the first measure of the stark F-minor Sonata: Perlman's tone is infused with the appropriate grit, something one no longer gets from him, and reaches heights of voluptuousness in the more popular D-major Sonata. The concerto performance is perfection, with the violinist's spiritedness set in relief by Leinsdorf's coolly efficient conducting of the BSO on one of its glory days.

Compared with the Perlman-Leinsdorf effort, the work's most recent recording (coupled with Prokofiev's First Concerto) sounds merely dutiful.

On it, the soloist is Boris Belkin, with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under Michael Stern simply doing a job (Denon 75891). Belkin, it might be noted, showed his gifts to better advantage in these works a decade ago, in a recorded collaboration with Kiril Kondrashin and the London Philharmonic.

Andre Previn's strong, supple 1970s interpretations of the Fifth and Seventh symphonies with the London Symphony must surely have been among those that made the prospect of his assuming the music directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic a pleasing one. By the time of his arrival some years later, however, Previn seemed to have lost the spark that these performances so compellingly exhibit.

The London's Fifth is at once rock-ribbed and mobile, while the enigmatic Seventh finds Previn and his orchestra gracefully in tune with its oddball humors (EMI 65181).

The Perlman and Previn reissues are mid-priced and each runs nearly 80 minutes. Spectacular value for the money.

The "Alexander Nevsky" Cantata, one of the few viable products of Soviet musical jingoism, arrives from Semyon Bychkov and his Orchestre de Paris (Philips 434 070).

The interpretation is rather willful, with some inappropriately fast tempos--above all in the "Field of the Dead," where the soloist, mezzo Marjana Lipovsek, is unable to make the composer's poignant points--and a weak chorus. But the accompanying suite from the underappreciated "Cinderella" is vivacious and well played.

In another new release, France's youthful Manfred Quartet reinforces the strong impression made in its previous offerings, of Schumann and Schoenberg, on the tiny, classy Pierre Verany label.

Their editions of Prokofiev's two string quartets combine gleaming tone and rhythmic propulsion. The B-minor Quartet's plaintiveness is captured as effectively as the jovial, populist sentiments of the Quartet in F (PV 791112).

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