Following on a highly regarded recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Litton here present their take on the composer’s Symphony No.5 in B flat minor. Written in 1944, at a time when the Soviet victory over the retreating Germans was only a few months away, the symphony was intended as a patriotic work, heroic and ultimately optimistic – the composer later described his aims as follows: ‘I thought of it as a work glorifying the human spirit.’ The history of music offers many instances where such extra-musical concerns have resulted in bombast, empty rhetoric and noisy banality. But with his Fifth, Prokofiev achieved something that he had long been aiming for: a big work of wide appeal that at the same time fulfilled the most demanding expectations of form and structure. The immediate success in Russia was soon followed by performances abroad, and as a result Prokofiev joined the ranks of the great symphonists of the 20th century, after having been previously known mainly for his music for the piano and for the stage. The closing work on this disc – the Scythian Suite – may to some extent be regarded as belonging to the latter category. It originated in 1915 as Ala and Lolli, a ballet score for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes based on a synopsis set among the Scythians, an ancient people of the steppes of Southern Russia. At the time Prokofiev composed the score, very little was actually known about this people, and in pre-revolutionary Russia ‘Scythian’ had become a byword for primitive savagery. Prokofiev’s music, with its wild dissonances and delight in sheer noise, amply fulfilled any matching expectations, but when Diaghilev heard it in a piano version he was less than enthusiastic, and the plans for a ballet were cancelled. Prokofiev was never prepared to waste good music, however, and out of the ballet score he extracted the colourful four-movement Scythian Suite for concert performance.
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