Early in his career as a pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazy was a champion of the music of his countryman Sergey Prokofiev, so it's no surprise that as a conductor Ashkenazy offers idiomatic and insightful performances of Prokofiev's orchestral music. This disc includes the composer's two most popular symphonies, the First "Classical Symphony," and the Fifth. The Sydney Symphony, of which Ashkenazy assumed artistic leadership in 2009, has the heft and finesse of a world-class orchestra. The heft might be considered a liability in the First Symphony, written for an orchestra sized for Haydn, but Ashkenazy and his players demonstrate that the piece can be a roaring success with plenty of fleetness, vitality, and sly wit, even if sound of the strings is bigger than is usual for this work. There's something exhilarating, like the danger of a rollercoaster, particularly in the fast movements, as the strings swoop giddily through the composer's utterly odd but utterly graceful lines, which don't quite deliver the same visceral thrill when the string sound is more modest. Ashkenazy capitalizes on the extremes of dynamics he can get from the contrast between the sections that are scored for a handful of instruments and those for the full ensemble, to terrific effect.
The Fifth Symphony is also, in an entirely different way, an odd work, full of abrupt juxtapositions of lyrical tenderness and grim brutality. Ashkenazy manages to give full value to its extremes, without trying to homogenize or smooth them over, and without sacrificing a sense of the music's ultimate coherence. In the third movement, the searing sweetness of one moment gives way to the gaping dread of the next with all the shock the composer must have intended. Exton's hybrid SACD has sound of exceptional quality, making this is a label to watch out for. The sound of the orchestra is full, warm, and immediate, yet details of orchestration pop with breathtaking clarity. Highly recommended, for both stunning performances and stunning sound.