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CD Review

Serge Prokofieff

Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony #1 in D Major "Classical", Op. 25
  • Symphony #2 in D minor, Op. 40
  • Symphony #3 in C minor, Op. 44
  • Symphony #4 in C Major, Op. 47 (Original Version)
  • Symphony #4 in C Major, Op. 112 (Revised Version)
  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major, Op. 100
  • Symphony #6 in E Flat minor, Op. 111
  • Symphony #7 in C Sharp minor, Op. 131
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitry Kitayenko
Phoenix Edition 135 5CDs
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I have reviewed a number of Prokofieff symphony cycles here at Classical Net, including the Gergiev (Philips 4757657), Ozawa (DG 463761-2), Kuchar (Naxos 8.553053, 8.553056, 8.553069), and by way of comparison in various reviews, Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya), Martinon (Vox), Weller (Decca), Kosler (Supraphon), Rostropovich (Erato) and Järvi (Chandos CHAN8400 & CHAN8401). Kitayenko recorded all the Prokofieff symphonies for Melodiya back in the 1980s, I believe, and this Phoenix Edition set comes to the market as the newest and aurally best of the eleven cycles in the Prokofieff symphony sweepstakes.

But it's not just the splendid sound reproduction that distinguishes this set – it's the insightful Kitayenko interpretations and splendid playing of the Gurzenich Orchestra. This is the second German orchestra, by the way, to do the Prokofieff symphonies, the other being the renowned Berlin Philharmonic, under Ozawa. And I'd say this Cologne-based ensemble holds their own against their better-known rivals.

To give you an idea of the style of interpretive approach taken by Kitayenko here, I would say he favors a sort of Mahleresque view of Prokofieff. This is most evident in the dark, epic Sixth Symphony.

Never has the powerful development section of the first movement sounded so imposing, so ominous. The exposition of the first movement is comprised of an angular Allegro moderato main theme, a distant cousin of the opening theme in the Seventh Piano Sonata. A related "dreamy" theme follows and soon the development section begins with a funeral march, a somewhat Mahlerian funeral march.

The mood then turns violent and militaristic, and here Kitayenko allows the music to crush everything in its path. The double-climax of this dark panel, with brass blaring, and drums and gong roaring, comes across with such wanton power; you'll want to hold on to your speakers for dear life. Prokofieff wrote the music in the aftermath of World War II and the mood throughout this movement and elsewhere in the symphony exudes wartime violence and tragedy in abundance. You can practically hear bombs dropping and people running for shelter. It is one of the composer's most profound works, and clearly his most complex symphony. Stokowski said he could write a book about the second movement, and I'll bet he would have needed a volume or two to sort out all the intricacies of the first movement, as well. The rest of the symphony is just as compelling in Kitayenko's hands and the work ends in powerful tragedy.

The early version of the Fourth Symphony is one work in this canon I have always felt was flawed. Here, Kitayenko makes it sound fresh, not a suite derived from The Prodigal Son, the ballet upon which it is thematically based. He also makes it sound bigger, more majestic, less Gallic in nature, more cosmopolitan. The lyrical beauty of the second movement comes across better here than in any previous recording. The earlier Fourth has always sounded not quite fully worked out, owing to its abrupt or even non-existent transitions and insufficiently developed material. The later Fourth corrects those shortcomings for the most part, expanding the material, adding a theme in the finale, and tacking on a new opening and coda. In the end, despite the views of so many critics, it's the better version of this symphony. And here, you understand that view. Kitayenko gives the work an epic flavor, taking it away from the world of ballet and landing firmly in the world of the symphony. This is the best performance of the work ever recorded, surpassing even the splendid Ormandy/Philadelphia, from around 1960. Wait till you hear the meltingly lyrical second movement, with its lovely main theme and middle section, which for once has some real color and character. In fact, the whole movement is infused with spirit and a sense of vitality lacking in many recordings.

The Scherzo is spirited as well, with splendid playing by the orchestra, playing that rivals that of any orchestra previously tackling this work, like the much-vaunted Philadelphia or Berlin Philharmonic. Henceforth, count me among the admirers of this Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra. The finale is just as creepy and grotesque here as in the Ormandy. The march comprising the middle section is brilliantly realized in its carefree bounce and dry humor.

If the rest of the symphonies were only so-so in this set, I would still find it necessary to give a recommendation, but they are equally fine. When I first heard Kitayenko's reading of the Second Symphony here, I was somewhat disappointed, mainly because of the slow-down in the development section at its raucous climax (starting around 7:13), a gear-shift also favored by Gergiev, but to a lesser degree. Upon my second hearing though, this feature did not bother me, but more importantly, I began to notice all the deftly-wrought nuances here and throughout: the subtle contrasts in dynamics, the pointing up of crucial detail and the good sense not to play down Prokofieff's sometimes brash orchestration.

The Third Symphony is powerful and dark, with strings that seem to console in the slow (second) movement and then slither eerily in the ensuing Scherzo. The first movement, with its mixture of tortured Romanticism and dark menace, is powerful and fully convincing. The grim finale is laced with acid and climaxes mightily in a frenzy of hysteria.

The "Classical" First is muscular, not fleet or sprightly. It's a modern take on this pastiche and works just fine, though some might prefer a lighter, more elegant approach. The Seventh is big here too, but Kitayenko fully captures its valedictory character and less complicated nature, using the original ending.

The Fifth, regarded by many as Prokofieff's greatest symphony (I'll take the Sixth), gets an epic treatment here: the first movement is triumphant in its huge washes of sound, with struggles resolved in victory, while the Scherzo is colorful and brilliantly executed by the orchestra; the Adagio is beautiful in its soaring main theme and agitated alternate material, while the finale is joyous and raucously triumphant.

Okay, where does this cycle rank with the others? I've already spoken about the superior sound reproduction, which is worlds ahead of that offered on most other recordings on the market. The performances are all convincing and, in some cases, among the finest ever given. There are a few weak moments, though: at the opening of the Second Symphony the trumpets accent every other note and clip the weaker ones, so that the music actually sounds slower and as though half the notes are dropped. But that is a minor flaw in a set that must overall be ranked as the finest set of Prokofieff symphonies available. Urgently recommended!

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Cummings