I decided to buy Gergiev's intergral set of Prokofiev symphonies after seeing no less than 5 critics from Gramophone magazine recommend it either as a gift for themselves or someone else in that magazine's December issue. I have learned the English listen to, and respond to, classical music differently than Americans; I have also learned that any production receiving such a widespread rave has a lot going for it.
After listening repeatedly to these symphonies, I was consistently torn as to giving this set 4 stars or 3.5 stars. There clearly is a significant enough shortcoming in this set -- the inadequate performance of Symphony No. 6 -- to keep this from receiving top recommendation. I decided it was worth 4 stars because of the multitude of other good things going on inside this set.
The good things begin immediately with the Gergiev-LSO collaboartion of the Symphony No. 1 "Classical". I read someone that disliked this performance because it was too stodgy. I cannot attest to such a viewpoint; I believe the performance is a good one, perhaps not as good as Ormandy's rapid fire address on the old Sony CD, but lively throughout and performed in keeping with the classical spirit of the thing.
You learn first in this symphony that this set will be characterized by fine playing from the London Symphony Orchestra and oustanding recording technology that brings extra life to timpani and low brass, something that gives the LSO a darker, almost Russian, sound.
Perhaps my favorite and, ironically, most curious performances are those of the Symphonies 2, 3 and original version of 4. Never before had I understood the common threads that run through 2, 3 and the opening movement of 4 until I heard them under Gergiev's baton.
I always thought of 2 as dissonant modernism reminiscent of a period factory at work -- perhaps a score for the 1950s television program "Industry On Parade". Here, Gergiev presents some of those characteristics but with Boulez-like clarity and sharpness. He continues along similar lines through the more musically developed Symphony 3 -- which unfolds like a Bernard Herrmann film score and later as an egregiously militaristic episode -- and into the opening of the original version of Symphony 4.
It was instructive for me to be able to listen to one conductor's view of both the original 1930 version of Symphony 4 and the composer's revision from 1947. Both inhabit Prokofiev's world of ballet but the original continues the manic capacities first presented in Symphonies 2 and 3, while the revision -- even though still energetic and sometimes coming off as a locomotive -- leans far more on Prokofiev's "French Russian" values of ballet, tone painting and more subtle coloring. The more Shostakovich-like Symphony 7 also shares many of these attributes under Gergiev's direction.
I was not particularly enamored with the opening movement of the famous Symphony No. 5, one of the few mid-20th century symphonies to be instantly accepted by audiences worldwide. However, I was bowled over by the excitement and tension Gergiev builds in the Allegro Marcato, whose pace is absolutely riveting. Ther remainder of the performance was good. However, I found it deficient compared to another British performance from a similar era -- the 2002 concert reading by the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda, released by BBC Magazine.
I was all set to upgarde my score on this set until I listened, again, to Gergiev's rendition of the Symphony No. 6, which is unquestionably the composer's greatest achievement in the symphonic format. There is no other way to say it -- I was shattered by disappointment. How could Gergiev motor along through the symphonies doing so well, getting the London Symphony to sound so Russian, and capturing all the motion, pathos and dance Prokofiev put into these works ... and come up with such a clinker in the Symphony No. 6?
For anyone that isn't familiar with it, the Symphony No. 6 is widely considered Prokofiev's greatest symphonic masterpiece. Not as popular as No. 5, it nevertheless deals with many of the same issues -- war, remembrance and humanity as expressed by a Soviet composer in the era of World War II, a time when composers flourished in the USSR with the great patriotic war as their backdrop.
Yet, Gergiev's version of this masterpiece almost completely misses its point. The first movement generates all the angst, sadness and loss from the world war, which took 25 million Russians to their graves and incited some of the world's fiercest and most time-honored battles in Stalingrad and Leningrad. But I think Gergiev misses all this in the symphony, which sounds to me like a literal run-through. Neither does the optimism of future days Prokofiev wrote in the closing Vivace -- which Mravinsky captured so well in his many recordings -- come through with much vigor.
Following the masterly work of the conductor and orchestra -- not to mention sound technicians, who do another fabulous job with the Symphony 6 -- this performance let me down more than anything I have heard in months. Still, this is a worthy set, reliably traversed by conductor and orchestra, brilliantly recorded in stereo (not SACD), and with 16 pages of detailed notes and photos that help the listener better understand the composer, the history of the individual symphonies, and their place in the world. Ironically, one of the photos shows Mravinsky and the composer during the premiere of the 6th Symphony.
Decca clearly has a winner here and it's not hard to see why all those Gramophone critics promoted this package. If only that Symphony 6 had stood up to -- or even in the shadow of -- the great Mravinsky performances, this set had the potential to be a best in decade production. Still it's a very good one but it eludes magificence on the basis of its failure. Still recommended but don't throw out your favorites and do try to locate a copy of Mravinsky's 6th Symphony.