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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Mariinsky SACD 577
  • Symphony #4 in C Major, Op. 112 (Revised 1947 version)
  • Symphony #6 in E Flat minor, Op. 111
  • Symphony #7 in C Sharp minor, Op. 131
  • Piano Concerto #4 in B Flat Major for the Left Hand, Op. 53 *
  • Piano Concerto #5 in G Major, Op. 55 **
* Alexei Volodin, piano
** Sergei Babayan, piano
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0577 2SACDs 81:02 & 77:22 Hybrid Multichannel
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This is the second volume in yet another Prokofiev symphony cycle by Valery Gergiev. His set on Philips with the London Symphony was issued in 2006 and was generally well received. I reviewed it here (Philips 4757657) that same year and found it a very strong effort overall, one of the best of the dozen or more previous cycles. Since then considerably more has appeared in the Prokofiev symphonic vein: this is now the fifth ongoing cycle of Prokofiev symphonies, the others being Alsop (Naxos), Litton (BIS), Gaffigan (Challenge Classics) and Karabits (Onyx). Actually, I believe Karabits has just concluded his cycle and, since I have covered his previous issues, I will await the final release for possible review here. I'm not sure why there is this sudden flood of attention on the Prokofiev symphonies, but here it is and for Prokofiev mavens it offers a plethora of new and interesting choices. To tell you the truth, I don't remember a time when there were five concurrent cycles of even the Beethoven symphonies!

I should point out that this new Gergiev cycle of the symphonies also contains the piano concertos, each apparently played by a different pianist. I reviewed the first issue in this series in 2014 here (Mariinsky MAR0549), which contained the Fifth Symphony and Third Concerto (with Denis Matsuev as soloist), and I found both performances quite excellent. The gem on this new double-SACD set is the Sixth Symphony. Gergiev offers a quite different view of the work compared with his London effort. Timings are radically different: the London Sixth clocked in at 40:23, while the Mariinsky times out to 44:50. The first and second movements are among the slowest timings ever, but the stopwatch only tells part of the story. Gergiev draws more angst out of each of these movements than I've ever heard in any other interpretation. I still like Kitayenko's Sixth (Pierian 135), as well as Weller's and even Gergiev's earlier London effort. But this new one offers a wealth of detail with music phrased intelligently and sensitively, capturing just about every facet of the work: the drama, suffering and crushing terror in the first movement and especially its intricate development section; the beauty and fading hope of the second movement; and the fleeting joy and final catastrophe of the deceptively complex finale. The ending is utterly terrifying, utterly crushing in this new account. What a performance! In addition, the Mariinsky outplays the London Symphony Orchestra here and, for that matter, in each of the three symphonies on these discs.

The Seventh is also significantly slower than Gergiev's London account, though the performances are not so different. This is a more lyrical and more heart-on-sleeve Seventh and ultimately one of the finest versions ever put on disc: the lyrical themes in first movement are phrased with a mesmerizing beauty, making you realize that when Prokofiev wanted to, he could sound as Romantic and lush as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The powerful and utterly moving return in the finale of that big first movement theme underscores this notion and is another highlight here. There have been many great Sevenths by Kitayenko, Previn, Tennstedt and, going way back, Nikolai Anosov, the father of Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who also turned in a fine Seventh Symphony of his own. But go with this new one by Gergiev over the others.

The new Fourth, heard here in its revised (1947) version, is only marginally slower than the London Fourth. Moreover, the two performances are really not that dissimilar, though I think the first movement is better shaped and the playing throughout the work is somewhat better. Kitayenko, Weller and Ormandy turned in excellent versions of this symphony, but this new one by Gergiev is competitive with them.

The performances of the concertos are also very good, but not great. Alexei Volodin delivers a bright and perky Fourth, but his third movement entrance and statement of the main theme are a bit cold and rushed. However, the staccato treatment of the cadenza in the same movement is surprisingly effective, even if it too might strike the listener, at least initially, as a somewhat icy approach. Overall, the performance is quite good but does not supplant Serkin and possibly a string of others that include Ashkenazy, Browning, Bronfman, and El Bacha. In the Fifth Sergei Babayan also turns in fine work: in fact his Fifth might well rival or even surpass the best previous versions by Ashkenazy, Richter, and Boris Berman, but for the fact that his third movement is played simply too fast. It's a difficult movement to play at such a tempo and is thus quite a technical feat, but the notes just go by too rapidly. The other movements are well played, though Babayan uses some dubious rubato in the finale: notice the big hesitation when he repeats the opening theme about ten seconds in. The orchestra, as in the Fourth, plays splendidly for Gergiev. The sound reproduction in all the symphonies and concertos is superb and very lifelike.

To sum up, let me say Valery Gergiev is one of the foremost interpreters of Prokofiev's orchestral and theater music. He has recorded more Prokofiev than any other conductor, including the prolific duo of Rozhdestvensky and Järvi. Gergiev has stated that Prokofiev is "maybe" his favorite composer. Certainly, Gergiev has shown with his wealth of recordings of Prokofiev's operas, ballets, and symphonic repertory that he understands the composer as few others do. Thus, any new recording of Prokofiev by him is an event of importance. Regular readers will know that I am a great admirer of the music of Prokofiev, and if I had to select the work of one Prokofiev conductor for the proverbial desert island, it would be Valery Gergiev. Prokofiev mavens as well as those interested in Russian or early 20th-century music should find this set most rewarding. With over eighty minutes on the first disc and nearly eighty on the second, you certainly get your money's worth. Highest recommendations!

Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings