As the reader can glean from the heading above, this Blu-ray disc offers the complete opening concert of the 2012 Salzburg Festival. Led by Valery Gergiev, it features Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death in the first half and Prokofiev's 5th Symphony to close out the evening. All three compositions have attained a high level of popularity in the concert hall, though the Mussorgsky work, scored for bass singer and piano, is often performed in an orchestrated version, as is the case here. Gergiev uses the 2007 arrangement by Alexander Raskatov, who not only orchestrates the music but also provides three interludes. His orchestration is imaginative but clearly modern in sound, as are the interludes. Yet, his take on this Mussorgsky masterpiece works brilliantly: try Serenade (track 7) where a menacing tuba and percussion imbue the music with dark jazzy character, or the colorfully orchestrated The Field-Marshal (11). Raskatov's interludes clash with the style of Mussorgsky somewhat, but overall his arrangement of the work is quite effective. Tenor Sergei Semishkur delivers the texts by Arseni Golenishchev-Kutuzov with commitment and passion. His voice is rich and powerful and convinces you that the work loses nothing (and may even gain something) in this tenor rendition.
The leadoff piece is Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. Gergiev conducts the work with fairly moderate tempos and draws out much detail from the orchestra. The chorus sings beautifully throughout, especially so in the final movement's Laudate eum in cymbalis benesonantibus, which is, as in any great performance, mesmerizing to hear. Did Stravinsky ever write anything more beautiful? The orchestra plays splendidly for Gergiev. The oboes, flutes and piccolo turn in stellar performances in the opening of the second movement and winds and strings in general are in fine form here and throughout. There have been many great versions of this work by Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon 457616), Craft (Naxos 8.557504), Ancerl, Simon Preston, Järvi, and Stravinsky himself, but this one by Gergiev ranks with the best. Moreover, it is the only recording I know of on video and thus is a must for the composer's fans.
Gergiev offers a scorching account of Prokofiev's 5th. Oddly, it is quicker in all four movements than Gergiev's Decca account with his London Symphony Orchestra, issued in 2006. The first movement closes with a powerful buildup and climax, and here Gergiev goes at quite a fast clip, especially the first time the now-transformed main theme is played. It works well and packs quite a wallop, though I think his initial pace is a bit too fast. The second movement Scherzo sizzles with much energy and tension in the outer sections, while wit and spirit abound in the infectious trio. What brilliant playing from the orchestra here! I usually stay away from declaring any orchestra as the greatest, but I'm increasingly coming to the viewpoint that the Vienna Philharmonic has very, very few peers. The third movement is played beautifully and with moderate pacing in the outer sections, while the dark middle section – which features two themes of rather morbid aspect – is played briskly, especially the first of the two themes. Overall, this is a brilliant account of this tragic movement. Gergiev and company reveal all the joy and trimuph in the colorful finale: listen to the hellbent, deliciously raucous coda.
There have been a spate of great versions of the Prokofiev 5th by Bernstein (twice), Kitayenko (Phoenix Edition 135), Tennstedt (Profil PH05003), Järvi (Chandos CHAN10500), Alsop (Naxos 5.573029), and the earlier Gergiev effort mentioned above (Philips 4757657). This new Gergiev is certainly worthy of consideration to be included among the strongest versions. Moreover, there is only one other video recording of the 5th, that a mono effort by Sergiu Celibidache which I have not heard.
There is one aspect about this new EuroArts Blu-ray recording which I have not yet mentioned and that is its highly detailed sound reproduction. Some listeners may find it too much of a good thing. I'll say this: I'm not sure I have ever before heard a recording with such closeup, vivid sound. You hear everything, from the turning of pages by the musicians to the minutest detail in the scoring, including elements of harmony that even the composers themselves, if they were still alive, might want blended more into the background. That said, this is quite an aural experience. Indeed, I'm sure the people in the front row didn't hear what you will: it's as if you're listening to the concert from within the orchestra itself. The camera work is excellent too, often spotlighting sections or individual players at appropriate moments in the score. No texts are provided for the Stravinsky and Mussorgsky works, but you can download them from any number of websites. By the way, perhaps I should mention that there are some celebrities in the audience, including Anna Netrebko, who applauds quite enthusiastically at the end of the Prokofiev 5th. At any rate, this is a spectacular concert on just about every count. Highest recommendations!
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings