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Karabits in Prokofiev 7

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Prokofiev, Symphonies 3/7, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, K. Karabits
(Onyx Classics, 2014)

[Vol. 2: Symph. 1/2]
Kirill Karabits, the son of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits, succeeded Marin Alsop as chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 2009. His live performances that have reached our ears -- with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2012 -- have been promising. He and the Bournemouth band began a Prokofiev symphony cycle last year, and the first volume includes the seventh symphony, a piece that receives some rare local performances this week from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop, beginning tonight in the Music Center at Strathmore.

Prokofiev wrote the seventh symphony, his last, in 1952, at a point when his denunciation by Soviet authorities had reduced him to poverty. As scholar Simon Morrison has written, the composer described this symphony, in official statements, as a tribute to youth that sought to "reflect the spiritual beauty and strength of the young people of our country," the "joy of life," and the desire to "move forward to the future." In it Prokofiev took pains to avoid the charge of formalism that Stalin's toadies had used against him, recycling the waltz theme and variations from his incidental music for Eugene Onegin in the second movement. At the same time, the rather silly Vivace finale has been described by Malcolm Brown as a send-up of the conventional Soviet music of the time, made to appease but to the point of parody.

In a final humiliation, Soviet authorities offered a prize (with enough money to help Prokofiev out of crippling debts) if he altered the somber end of the symphony by briefly returning to the Offenbach-Galop music that opens the final movement. Desperately in need of money, with his wife Lina condemned to hard labor on trumped-up charges of espionage, Prokofiev knuckled under. Karabits has recorded the symphony as Prokofiev originally completed it, with a final track containing the sterile addition that Prokofiev repudiated shortly before he died. The first movement's soft theme with glockenspiel, which returns at the end of the original version of the finale, recalls the Astrologer's music from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel, a sign that the seventh symphony is not so much about Soviet youth as it was a reminiscence about the composer's youth. As Alex Ross put it, the seventh symphony is a "gentle, wistful withdrawal from the world"; Alex also quotes a letter from Shostakovich, who said that listening to this symphony "makes it much easier and more joyful to live."

Prokofiev composed the third symphony in 1928, piecing together chunks of his opera The Fiery Angel, which would never reach the stage in his lifetime. It sets a disturbing story about a young woman possessed by a spiritual force, and the wild style of the music, so individualistic and even defiant, makes a sad comparison with the inhibited, even defeated sound of the seventh symphony. No telling yet whether this Karabits cycle will challenge the best options out there, but the playing and sound are beautiful and Karabits, as indicated by his comments in the liner notes and interviews approaches the works with strong ideas.

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