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Outstanding Prokofiev from London Philharmonic Orchestra

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 3 & ‘Chout’

Vadim Repin (violin), Simon Callow (narrator), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Alexander Lazarev (conductor)

This is a superb recording based upon two live concerts at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London dating back to 1997¹. It represents the LPO’s first all-Prokofiev release and it benefits greatly from having the fine Russian conductor, Alexander Lazarev at the helm and, in the case of the concerto, a talented young violinist who has performed the Prokofiev piece frequently.

The four works (it also contains the short, early piece Dreams, Op. 6) encountered on this release are united by Prokofiev’s unequalled ability to tell a story through the medium of music. Disc 1 begins in splendid fashion with Vadim Repin’s account of Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19. This performance starts and gets even better in the thrilling scherzo. Repin’s playing is mesmeric throughout and he exhibits a superb sense of line which enables the ideas flow spontaneously in the finale. The LPO are also at the top of their game and this makes for one of the finest accounts available. Next we have Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44 which is based on themes from his opera The Fiery Angel which at the time had remained unperformed. This is among the best of Prokofiev’s symphonies and here it gets a performance from Alexander Lazarev and the London Philharmonic Orchestra that truly does justice to it. Once again Lazarev shows the ability to steadily build a work and we are treated to a suitably hair-raising end.

The second disc begins with a version of Chout, Op. 21 (The Tale of the Buffoon) in a narrated version. My familiarity with this work comes from a purely orchestral performance by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Susskind. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this narrated version of the dark and somewhat farcical tale thanks, in no small part, to the quality of the narration by Simon Callow and the fact that the spoken passages do not overly intrude on the musical flow of the piece. If you are unfamiliar with this work then it is worthy of your investigation. The CD comes to a close with Prokofiev’s youthful symphonic poem Dreams, Op. 6.

This recording has been issued as a double CD set (available for £11.50 or less) and as a CD-quality download. It represents outstanding value for money with first rate performances of the two main works on the programme together with the added value of a rarely heard narrated version of  Chout. This a highly recommended all-Prokofiev release which could grace any collection.

iClassical rating: 

¹ Recorded on 28 November 1997 (Violin Concerto No. 1, Chout and Reves) and 30 November 1997 (Symphony No. 3).

Smetana’s Má vlast – Work No. 67 in our collection

Bedřich Smetana (02.03.1824 – 12.05.1884) was a Czech composer who developed a musical style, inspired by popular legends, history and countryside, that became synonymous with his country’s aspirations for independence. Nowadays he is recognised as the vital force in establishing Bohemian music around the globe. Not even his successor, the great Dvořák made his homeland such an indelible part of his musical style.

Most of Smetana’s early works were written for the piano but these are rarely heard today. He also wrote chamber music and his Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 remains a popular piece. Smetana had virtually no precursors in Czech opera¹ but he proceeded to write such operas as The Kiss and The Bartered Bride; though only the latter is widely available on CD. However it is for his orchestral music that Smetana is most remembered and his work Má Vlast (My Country) is a true masterpiece that deservers a place in any collection.

Má Vlast is a set of six symphonic poems composed between 1874 and 1879:

  1. Vysehrad ( The high castle)
  2. Vltava (The Moldau) – evoking the sounds of the great river
  3. Šárka – a female warrior
  4. Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s woods and fields) – which perfectly evokes the feeling of the countryside
  5. Tábor – city in in the south of Bohemia
  6. Blaník – a mountain in which, according to legend, a huge army of knights led by St. Wenceslas sleep.

There are two truly great historic performances of this great work. Firstly the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s legendary rendition conducted by Rafael Kubelík (recorded at the 1990 Prague Spring Festival) and the most moving recording of them all Vaclav Talich’s live wartime performance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1939.

However a work of this nature does benefit from modern sound so on balance we have decided to include another live recording of Smetana’s great work performed by the Czech Philharmonic; this time conducted by the late Jiří Bělohlávek. It was recorded during the opening concerts of the celebrated Prague Spring Festival. This was the orchestra’s first appearance at Prague Spring following the maestro’s return to the orchestra as Chief Conductor in 2012.



¹ With the possible exception of František Škroup.

View the other works in our collection.

Beautifully phrased Götterdämmerung from Hong Kong Philharmonic

Wagner: Götterdämmerung

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Brünnhilde), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen), Shenyang (Gunther), Amanda Majeski (Gutrune), Peter Kálmán (Alberich), Michelle DeYoung (Waltraute), Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

Back in October 2015 eyebrows were raised at iClassical when we came across Jaap van Zweden’s recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on Naxos. However following a listening session we were sold on this unexpected adventure and suspected that these forces might go on to produce a Ring Cycle that would be of great interest.

Well here we are in November 2018, reviewing their final installment of the cycle namely Götterdämmerung. It is quite amazing what Jaap van Zweden has achieved with the Hong Kong Philharmonic – an orchestra whose primary home is the concert-hall rather than the opera-house.

This fine version can, without question, hold its head high among any of the competition. The sound recording is excellent, the balance between orchestra and soloists near ideal, and the orchestra itself performs superbly. Van Zweden draws excellent playing throughout, finding colour and shade in the score, where many (often rather eminent) competitors do not. Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Brunnhilde sings quite beautifully, Daniel Brenna is dramatic as Siegfried, Eric Halfvarson is suitably dark as Hagen and Michelle De Young does well enough but at times uses excessive vibrato. Overall the soloists are sufficiently good not to mar an otherwise very fine performance.

This recording of Götterdämmerung and, indeed, the whole cycle can be recommended at bargain price – it would provide an economic way of becoming acquainted with this set of epic music dramas. Götterdämmerung is available now on CD, Blu-Ray disc and as a download.

Within a few days the four operas will be made available by Naxos as a complete Ring Cycle at very favourable pricing. The recordings of all four operas have their strengths, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre being particularly strong, but the variable nature of the casting from opera to opera is far from ideal within a recorded set. The complete cycle does not come close to the standard of Solti’s fine version from the 1960s but that is a truly outstanding achievement in recording history.

iClassical rating: 

Grieg’s Peer Gynt incidental music – Work No. 66 in our collection

Edvard Hagerup Grieg (15.06.1843 – 04.09.1907) was a Norwegian composer and pianist. He is the most celebrated person from the city of Bergen, with numerous statues depicting his image, and many cultural entities named after him. Grieg’s best known works include his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16Holberg Suite, Op. 40, his Lyric Pieces, including Wedding Day at Troldhaugen and March of the Trolls, and the incidental music to Peer Gynt. Grieg is one of the leading composers of the Romantic era, and pieces such as those  above continue to enthral audiences worldwide.

Grieg composed the incidental music for the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt: a five-act play in verse published in 1867. The play chronicles the journey of Peer Gynt from the Norwegian mountains to the North African desert. Peer Gynt was first performed in, what is now, Oslo on 24 February 1876, with Grieg’s original music and included some of today’s most recognized classical pieces, In the Hall of the Mountain King and Morning Mood.

The score that Grieg composed to accompany the play is quite extensive. However, the composer extracted two suites of four pieces each from the incidental music (Opus 46 and Opus 55), which have subsequently became very popular as concert music. There are a number of fine recordings of the suites available including one by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra that we can particularly recommend. However we have decided to include a disc of highlights of the incidental music (that includes the eight pieces in the suites) recorded in 1957 by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the Beecham Choral Society and the soprano Ilse Hollweg.

For those readers who are seeking a performance of the entire incidental music we would recommend Neeme Järvi’s account, from the 1980s, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

View the other works in our collection.