Symphonies can be tough nuts to crack – at least numbers
2 to 6. That must be the reason why there are relatively
few complete cycles of them available; eight, by my count:
Walter Weller was first with the LPO and LSO (1974-78, Decca),
behind the iron curtain Zdenèk Kosler recorded them with
the Czech Philharmonic (1976-82, Supraphon).
In 1985 Chandos issued Neeme Järvi’s set with the Royal Scottish
National Orchestra which became an instant hit. A little
later Rostropovich followed (French National Orchestra, 1985-87,
then came Ozawa (Berlin Philharmonic, 89-92, DG - see review
then Theodore Kuchar (Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra,
and finally Valery Gergiev with the only live recordings
of the bunch (LSO, 2004, Philips - see review
Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya), Martinon (Vox), and Kitajenko
to have fallen by the wayside. Kitajenko
has put down a new cycle (Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, Phoenix
Edition - see review
which, if it is as good as his Shostakovich cycle (Capriccio),
will be a hot item.
The recent Gergiev
cycle was much hailed; as a whole, I found it curiously unsatisfactory.
Something doesn’t seem right, even if the grittier approach
compared to Ozawa, certainly benefited Symphonies Three and
Six, which are very fine. The sound is good, but not great,
the playing very good, but not outstanding. Almost all the
symphonies have great moments, but none an unbroken arch.
The Seventh lacks pensive beauty. So far I preferred Kuchar’s
Naxos cycle - I’ve not heard Rostropovich’s or Kosler’s -
if it had to be a complete cycle at all.
But now Chandos
has reissued its Järvi cycle in a complete box and the performances
simply knock your socks off. The recorded sound is great,
the Scottish National Orchestra plays like a world class
band, and the symphonies don’t just have bite - or that pensive
beauty as in the case of the marvelous, charming, sweeping
Järvi Seventh - they are coherent and unified structures.
Like Gergiev, Järvi includes the 1930 original version of
the Fourth Symphony (concise, restrained) as well as the
1947 revised version (epic, sprawling-impressive), and both
get first rate performances. Without resorting to exaggeration,
Järvi gives the spiky works a beauty I’d never heard or even
expected. At the same time, he doesn’t let a brutal work
like the Third fall victim to harmlessness. There’s still
blood on the floor when Järvi is finished with it, just not
as much - and fewer crushed bones - than when Muti (Philips)
goes through it. All in all, this is not only a set to complete
your Prokofiev collection, it’s also the one to start it
- if you haven’t yet.
Jens F. Laurson