It was a happy choice for Marin Alsp and the Sao Paolo SO to get together - she brought an international reputation to Brazil's best orchestra, and we get the benefit of hearing an ensemble of quality that was previously overlooked. There are no quibbles about how well the orchestra plays on their new Prokofiev CD, and Naxos's recorded sound is good enough to compete with almost anyone's. As a bargain Prokofiev symphony cycle, this one should fit the bill when it concludes.
But the Prokofiev Fifth has a long track record on disc, and some collectors may feel that owning Koussevitzky, Bernstein, and Karajan, to name three notable examples, fills out all we need to hear. Among the Russian conductors, who have made Prokofiev as popular on concert programs as Mendelssohn (I consulted a catalog of 4,200 broadcast concerts from the U.S. and Europe), it's a surprise that Gergiev's two accounts - one with the LSO, the other with the Mariinsky Orch. - are somewhat stolid, but to compensate, there's a magnificent recording by Vladimir Jurowski that's now my first choice.
In this company, Alsop seems polished but underpowered, unwilling to really dig into the score for the excitement and drama it contains. There have been similarly civilized Fifths in the past, especially Szell's, often cited as a classic but too contained even by comparison with non-Russians like Simon Rattle and James Levine, two others who excel in this music. Alsop takes a balletic view, reminding us that the symphony owes a great deal to the idiom of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and her approach yields some lovely moments in the second and third movements. For me, these aren't enough to outweigh the passages of routine music-making.
The makeweight is a three-movement orchestral suite, The Year 1941, which is credibly performed in ballet style, especially the sprightly last movement. When he was assigned to write a score around the theme of the devastating German invasion of Russia, it must have been a shock for Prokofiev to produce a score this breezy and inconsequential - in fact, it received cool reviews at the time. Did he dust off some manuscript pages lying around his dacha? It's interesting to hear the work once or twice, but I doubt that anyone would purchase this CD just for its filler when the performance of the main work is only "serviceable," to quote one London reviewer.