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Prokofiev: The Complete Symphonies Box set
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GERGIEV VALERY / LONDON S. O.
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The First Symphony is beautifully played with the Finale played with a slightly faster tempo than I am accustomed to that even more brings out the exuberance of the music. The original and revised versions of the Fourth Symphony are included, and the revised version follows the First which makes an interesting contrast. I had not heard the revised Fourth for some years and it was very nice to have it again. The Symphony, based on the ballet The Prodigal Son, received its revision around the time Prokofiev wrote his Sixth Symphony and so there is music more reminiscent of his later orchestral writing mixed with the ballet music from the 1920's. The slow movement is played with particular beauty by the LSO and the third movement is played lightly with playful shading. The symphony is brought to an exciting close with the trumpet coda the composer added as a nod to Stalin.
The Second Symphony is the least performed and is noted for its heavy counterpoint and sounds as if describing some industrial complex as found in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The symphony is in two movements with the second being theme and variations. Valery Gergiev is in his element here and his recording surpasses the one by Neeme Jarvi in clarity of performance. The Third Symphony benefits from Maestro Gergiev's performances of The Fiery Angel from which the music is drawn. The symphony has a "raw" sound that gives it more drive than found in a performance of the opera. The opening of the symphony is a bit faster than some performances that I have heard and the speed has adds tension to the music. The slow movement is nicely paced and beautifully played while the third has a nice ghost-like feel from the strings punctuated by moments of agitation drums. The final movement if marvelously played with Gergiev keeping a steady tempo and the LSO negotiating the tricky passages perfectly.
The 1930 version of the Fourth Symphony is paired with the Fifth and is lovingly played. The Fifth is majestic in this performance; one immediately gets carried away by the music. As many times as I have heard the Fifth it would be hard to recall a more shattering and triumphant first movement. The scherzo is marvelously played, a true whirlwind of music encompassing sarcasm and terror. The slow movement is serenely austere and the finale brings out the hesitant optimism of the movement ending with a splendid heroic conclusion. The Sixth Symphony is one of my favorites, and I have recordings by Neeme Jarvi and Mravinsky. The Gergiev starts out a bit slower and gradually builds to a faster tempo as the music builds until it crashes only to slowly build again and end quietly. The middle movement is superbly played; the menacing chords of the beginning setting the tone for the sorrow theme; the finale is a wonderful mix of jubilation tempered by fear. The depth of feeling that Gergiev gets from the LSO is what makes me place this recording as my favorite although I intend to keep my other recordings as well. The Seventh Symphony, like its predecessors, is well played. The melancholy of the first movement is beautifully conveyed as is the wistful waltz of the second movement, harkening back to Cinderella and War and Peace. Gergiev has chosen to end of the symphony with the original melancholy conclusion rather than the additional bars to give a "happy ending" more suitable for a Stalin prize.
The recordings are nicely engineered and I was able to pick out aspects of the orchestration that had been mixed with the orchestra in other recordings. For example, the piano parts that Prokofiev wrote in the revised Fourth Symphony came through rather than being lost in the overall sound of the orchestra. One can argue in favor of their favorite performance of the symphonies but Valery Gergiev has performed quite a feat with these recordings. All of the symphonies were performed in concert but there is no hint of an audience and there is no applause at the end of the symphonies.
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.
Gergiev is flexible and free in his phrasing, rarely giving us the thrusting, muscular Soviet readings so common in Prokofiev. His 'Classical' Sym. begins a bit slow and serious where most conductors try to be fizzy and carefree (he makes up for it in the whirling finale). In the Fifth he also finds more seriousness, less of the usual orchestral romp. The ferocious climax ending the first movement packs a wallop, however, thanks to Philips' dynamic sonics. The Sixth and Fourth are decidedly melancholy at times, although the deliberate barbarisms in the Second aren't shied away from. I only wish that he had paid attention to Mravinsky's bracing, acerbic way with the Sixth, a potentially dramatic work that Gergiev somewhat underplays.
Gergiev's cycle, besides being excellent in its own right, fills a hole in the catalog, in that previous cycles by Ozawa (too tame) and Jarvi (underwhelming orchestra, brash conducting) were disappointing. Even the much touted Leinsdorf set from the Sixties with the BSO, now reissued on Testament, lacks the gorgeous sonics Gergiev is given, not to mention his total immersion in Prokofiev's world.
Some years back I felt disappointment in Gergiev's set of the complete piano concertos with Toradze, but every performance here deserves to compete with the best, including Bernstein (Sym. #1 and #5), Mravinsky (Sym. #5 and #6), Rostropovich (Sym. #6), Karajan (Sym. #5), and Malko (Sym. #7).
P.S. 2014 - I've reduced the stars from five to four in light of Rozhdestvensky's Prokofiev cycle from the mid-Sixties, newly released by Melodiya on 3 CDs. All the performances easily surpass what Gergiev gives us.
If I were asked to describe Prokofiev's music I would start by saying it is always telling a story and it is full of contrasts. There is no story here in Gergiev's set, it is a bunch of sounds. Yes the rushed dramatic sections are exciting (but sometimes too rushed, I felt the LSO could not keep up and perhaps even lost concentration at times - this never happened with Leinsdorf, Rozhdestvensky or Weller!!!). But the tender sections were gone, the `other-worldliness' like in Symphony #3 was gone. It was played with fullness, slower, not gentler. There was some warmth but not much, and absolutely no tenderness which is such an integral part of Prokofiev's music, and I found that the landscape that the prior conductors had set was gone! Prokofiev's Symphonies are like Romeo and Juliet. There is the battle with Tybult which is like the rushing sections of the symphonies which are even grotesque at times, but then also there are the gentle and extremely tender dance of Juliet during the party in the beginning of the story where Neuryev(Romeo) sees Margo Fontayne (Juliet) if you have seen that wonderful British Ballet. So, in my opinion without contrasts this is not Prokofiev, this is a run through-poorly done. Unfortunately EMI only released Rozhdestvensky's symp 1-4 on a twofer and never the other 3. And only Leinsdorf's 1 & 5 came out on an RCA navigator which could have used the late Jack Pfeiffer to produce it well. A waste of money, indeed.