Vasily Petrenko of the Oslo Philharmonic. (Photo by Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Prokofiev/Miaskovsky: Symphonies (LAWO Classics)

Norman Leberecht laments not being able to give the Oslo Philharmonic the five stars they deserve

Lebrecht's Album of the Week


What would you say if I gave up star ratings? They are only the vaguest approximation of a critic’s opinion and they might well be affected by the weather, or the latest Covid numbers.

I’ve seen ratings that barely reflect the text of a review, just as footballers get marks out of ten that bear no relation to their influence on a game. I know some readers look no further than the star rating before making up their minds. But for those who actually read, does the rating make any difference to you? Do tell.

The Oslo crew deserve five stars and I’m frustrated that I have to hold one back

Take the present pair of symphonies, the Prokofiev 5th and Miaskovsky 21st. The playing by the Oslo Philharmonic is outstandingly colourful and subtle, with shades of authentic Russian woodland evoked by the conductor Vasily Petrenko. I have heard the Berlin Philharmonic play the Prokofiev with marginally greater bite and beauty, which means I can’t give the Norweigians five full stars in good conscience. That’s where things get distorted. This is a fabulous performance, stars or no stars.

The sonorous Adagio of the Prokofiev Fifth is wonderfully shaped: an awesome blend of fear and hope, and fear again. Premiered in Moscow in January 1945, the symphony was intended as a hymn to freedom just as Stalin was getting ready to crush artists once again. Prokofiev’s timing was always politically poor.

I wish we heard more of Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950). Myaskovsky keeps his symphonies short and his emotions restrained. The 21st symphony, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940, takes us through four interlocked movements in just quarter of an hour. The writing, especially for winds, is exquisite and the atmosphere inviting. Petreno conducts with fervour, tempered by restraint.

The Oslo crew play with passion. They deserve five stars and I’m frustrated that I have to hold one back. It’s a rotten system.

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