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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Complete Symphonies
CD 1 [50:25]
Symphony No.1 in D, Op.25 "Classical Symphony" (1917) [13:54]
Symphony No.4 in C, Op.47/112 [36:32]
(Revised 1947 version)
CD 2 [66:20]
Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40 (1924) [34:33]
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.44 (1928) [31:48]
CD 3 [64:28]
Symphony No.4 in C, Op.47/112 [22:51]
(Original 1930 version)
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100 (1945) [41:38]
CD 4 [72:12]
Symphony No.6 in E flat, Op.111 (1947) [40:23]
Symphony No.7, Op.131 (1952) [31:49]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre London: 1 May 2004 (Symphonies 2, 3), 1-2 May (Symphony No.1), 2 May (Symphony No.4 original version), 2, 6 May (Symphony No.5), 6 May (Symphony No.4 revised version), 5, 8 May (Symphonies 6, 7)
PHILIPS 475 7655 [4CDs: 50:25 + 66:20 + 64:28 + 72:12]


What might you expect from this combination? One of Europe’s - if not the world’s - top orchestras being led in the entire symphonies of Prokofiev by Russia’s most outstanding conducting export of the last decade? The Guardian quote on the back of the box sums it up well: ‘Valery Gergiev is a born Prokofiev interpreter … he made the LSO sound like the ideal musicians for this repertoire.’ I have seen Gergiev at work often enough in The Netherlands, and he almost invariably seems to be able to wring Russian-ness from the orchestras with whom he works – in the appropriate repertoire, of course. There is a fearsome intellect at work with Gergiev which not only somehow manages to inhabit the mind and intentions of the composer, but which also lives and breathes the context and time in which the music was written. Prokofiev’s symphonies demand extreme attention to detail and an excess of commitment to be truly effective. Not all of the music is the best you will ever hear, but Gergiev’s mastery argues and convinces, overriding basal criticism and always welcoming even the ‘weaker’ moments into Prokofiev’s extended and profuse family of invention.
 
Gergiev’s intentions on the opening of the “Classical Symphony” are clear from the start. To me, it sounds like the beginning of a long journey, and the treat we have in store is a genuine cycle, not a sequence of performances related by composer’s name alone.  Treading the refined line laid by Prokofiev’s deliberately Haydnesque (or is it Mozartean) classical style, he emphasises the composer’s joy in finding his solution to initiating a lifelong symphonic career, and the clarity and transparent orchestration in the score. There is plenty of time for revolutionary excitement later on in the cycle, and this first Symphony is in many ways the calm before the storm. So much of the music breathes the country air in which Prokofiev worked on this piece, and the whole performance exudes refreshing exuberance – right down to the flutes, who are put through their paces and only just survive the cracking tempo set for the last movement.
 
The Second Symphony inhabits an altogether different world. Inspired in part by Honegger’s Pacific 231, the piece underwent a difficult creative process and was initially criticised for being over-complicated. Prokofiev’s own lack of confidence is betrayed in his comment on the first performance, ‘[I had] complicated the piece to such an extent that as I listened, even I couldn’t find the essence.’ In fact, and certainly in this performance, the whirlwind precocity of ideas and orchestral contrasts possess a steamroller inevitability which simultaneously defy and confirm logic in a uniquely individualistic statement. The strings dig deeply, and brass and winds are solidly stoical. The fearsome energy of the first movement is succeeded by the apparent respite of the quiet opening of the Theme and Variations, but Gergiev’s occasional vocalising from the podium show how intensely he is drawing the orchestra through every musical sentence. In some ways this is Prokofiev’s Rite, with Stravinsky’s bulbous nose occasionally pushing through into what remains an incredibly influential and modern sounding movement.
 
The Third Symphony has its origins in an operatic work based on Valery Bryusov’s The Fiery Angel. With some debate as to whether it should be called a ‘Symphony’ rather than a ‘Suite’ derived from the opera, Koussevitzky hailed it in its premiere as ‘the best symphony since Tchaikovsky’s Sixth’ which is a definitive enough statement with which to make that particular point. Operatic references certainly give the music a programmatic feel, but with the strength of the ideas and Gergiev’s stirring advocacy it is easy to take this as purely symphonic music – albeit with a great deal of added exoticism and explicitly illustrated imagery. The Allegro agitato third movement has some remarkable squealing string effects which come over superbly: love themes existing in an edgy balance with the ‘supernatural slides and thuddings’ mentioned in David Nice’s excellent booklet notes. The compact finale is full of grimly dark references and shivering, cinematic suspense-building, and with the chiming of a heavy bell towards the end it’s like the demonized spirits of Dukas and Berlioz in a life or death struggle filmed in black-and-white on the Reichenbach falls.
 
The later 1947 version of the Fourth Symphony appears first on this set, coupled with the ‘Classical Symphony.’ It is the original 1930 version which possesses comparable classical proportions, but its lengthier brother fills a disc with the compact No.1 more satisfactorily. Lebrecht describes both versions as ‘an unwholesome mess,’ which does seem a little harsh. Take the work on its own terms, and all of the lyrical and harmonically inventive Prokofiev is present. What disturbs is the addition of new material which seems deliberately aimed at pleasing Stalinists, but no-one should forget the strength of post-war feeling which can drive such decisions – you can certainly see the caps flying into the air at the end of the final brass led coda. It’s only when you compare the lugubrious excesses of Op.112 with the sinuous and punchy directness of the original that you genuflect in gratitude that we still have both, and so listeners might prefer to take the later version as a kind of appendix to this set. Gergiev always has us in the palm of his hand in both versions however, making us believe, removing any doubt that we are listening to great music – or if not the greatest of music, then certainly music worthy of respect conceived by one of the greatest of composers.
 
The Fifth Symphony is in many ways the crowning glory of Prokofiev’s symphonic output, and if one is comparing individual versions Gergiev is up against a serious club of competitors. I’m a big fan of the energy which can be generated by live performances, and Gergiev certainly raises the roof of the Barbican hall. Prokofiev publicly stated that his conception of the work was as ‘a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit.’ Gergiev is alive to the darkness inherent in the composer’s situation – increasingly affected by the strictures and dangers inherent in the political developments of the time, but keeping something in reserve for the last two symphonies. The LSO’s brass are true stars in this performance, with a weight and richness of sonority which is truly excellent. The sheer passion which Gergiev manages to conjure from the strings in the Adagio is masterly, and the balance which holds each layer in place in some of the more complex textures is also stunning. The Allegro giocoso is a thoroughly enjoyable gallop, with the horns driving through rhythmically and some brilliant woodwind solos enriching the gentler sections: and that ending has to be the ending to end all endings!
 
The Sixth Symphony tragic tones are compared to Shostakovich‘s Eighth in the booklet, and it was soon blacklisted by the Soviets as representing ‘the abnormal, the repellent and the pathological.’ The melancholy of Prokofiev’s themes is emphasised by a spareness of orchestration which develops through some remarkable effects, including stabbing piano chords and sustained waves of horns on one note. The second Largo initially offers no relaxing respite from the stresses of the first movement, pushing on with the drama of a lengthy melody which contains a reference to Wagner’s Parsifal. The uneasy development, full of nightmarish outbursts, only relinquishes its grip temporarily in order to allow the harp and celesta to bring contrast of colour and support to the horns’ calmer nocturne. The forced jollity of the final Vivace is constantly undermined by sardonic countermelodies and musical replies which fling themes around the orchestra like a set of soiled Frisbees.
 
Written just one year before the composer’s all too early death, the Seventh Symphony is superficially more approachable than the Sixth. The deportation of his first wife Lina to a Siberian labour camp had contributed to further health problems in the winter of 1950, and the symphony is in constant flux between nostalgic reflection on earlier works, well travelled paths in terms of musical gesture, and the search for expressions of profundity and emotional substance within the constraints of the demands of the Soviet committee. Prokofiev publicly claimed to have intended the work for children’s radio, but there are few moments where you feel this is being attempted at all seriously. The final gallop is happy in the same way as the people of ‘Happy Valley’ are happy – they have to be; they have no choice. Prokofiev’s fixed musical grin has genuine built-in wit, but those glazed eyes have a manic glint behind them. Gergiev has wisely chosen to use his original, movingly shadowy close, rather than end with the ‘tacked on twenty-two more bars of gallop’ which would have provided the required committee-friendly happy dispatch.                                                         
 
Gergiev has a way of making Prokofiev’s permanently febrile musical imagination coherent and consistent even in the more ‘difficult’ symphonies. His ability to sustain the highest drama and tensions in the slow movements are to my mind unsurpassed. There are one or two moments when the strings are pushed to the limits, but these recordings possess all of the energy of live performances without any nasty bumps, bangs or resident consumptives: the orchestra is on top form and the playing is second to none, with the musicians clearly responding 110% to Gergiev’s leadership.
 
In comparison with Shostakovich there are relatively few complete Prokofiev sets. Naxos’ box with orchestras from the Ukraine and Poland inevitably has the advantage of budget price – 9 CDs including all of the piano concertos as well. Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos has been high on the list of choices since 1985, but no version is completely perfect, and issues of woodwind balance, transparency and volume/substance in the strings have been raised. For sheer opulence there is Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. Compared with Gergiev his recordings are almost a rose-tinted view of the works. There is a great deal of power and energy in the performances, but few moments which will have you out of your plush red sofa pacing the room with angst.      
 
My one reservation with this new set has nothing to do with the performances or the recording as such. I must admit that the Barbican Hall acoustic has always seemed to me somewhat problematic – not so much as a concert hall (I have been to many marvellous and memorable concerts there), but as a recording venue. It is something to which the ear adjusts of course, and such excellent performances transcend location in a way which makes me hesitant to complain. These works require so much elbow room however that it sometimes seems almost an insult to restrict them in any way, and one is left to imagine how the whole thing would have sounded in a slightly more spacious setting. Rich, resonant acoustics do however smack of Western decadence, and with this set you are guaranteed ‘the full works’ in terms of drama, excitement, sheer grit, pain and misery. Gergiev holds such a powerful grip on this music that you may find you have bitten your nails to the bone – even (and sometimes especially) in the slow movements. There is fun to be had as well of course, but for me Gergiev brings Prokofiev’s symphonic achievement to a new level with this set. Agreed, he was not a ‘natural symphonist’ in the conventional sense, but his work echoes on in symphonic compositions even today, and I found myself discovering more pointers to later composers than I remember from other recordings. There may be ‘cleaner’ recordings of the more popular symphonies, but those of you who have avoided the so-called ‘weaker’ symphonies until now might do well to discover them in this context. I sense Gergiev arguing against Prokofiev’s critics: ‘nix weaker – where is weak, show me weak?’ This is a set with which you will be able to live for a long time, and from which new things will always emerge from each hearing.
 
Well, what else did you expect?
 
Dominy Clements  
 

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