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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1921) [26:49]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 100 (1944) [43:44]
Denis Matsuev (piano)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 19-20 June, 5 October 2012, Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg (concerto); 15 April 2015, Moscow Conservatoire (symphony)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet included
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto for the left hand (No. 4) in B flat major, Op. 53 (1931) [22:18]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in G major, Op. 55 (1932) [21:30]
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 112 (1947) [37:08]
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111 (1947) [44:46]
Symphony No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (1952) (1947) [32:32]
Alexei Volodin (piano: Concerto 4)
Sergei Babayan (piano: Concerto 5)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 25 April 2012, Moscow Conservatoire (Concerto 5, Symphony 7); 6, 9 April, 13 September 2015, Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg (Symphonies 4, 6, Concerto 4)
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from Hyperion Records
Pdf booklet included

Now this is a risky proposition, reviewing not one but two new recordings from a conductor who’s been quite variable of late. His Mariinsky Shostakovich Ninth comes to mind, although the coupling – the First Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos - is rather good (review). Ditto his pairing of Shostakovich and Shchedrin piano concertos with Denis Matsuev; that veers from irredeemably vulgar to thoughtful and illuminating (review). Then there are his Rachmaninov symphonies on LSO Live; the Third is dreary, but the Second is top notch (review). Come to think of it, Gergiev is a lot like Lorin Maazel; on a bad night he’s maddening, but on a good one he’s inspirational.

Now we have his new Prokofiev cycle, which celebrates the composer’s 125th birthday. Gergiev has recorded these symphonies before, for Philips, and a cracking set it is too (review). Even then it pales next to Dmitri Kitaienko’s Gürzenich series; that's high-octane stuff, with recordings to match (review). As for the piano concertos, I’ve always had a soft spot for Michel Béroff’s scintillating collection from the 1970s (EMI/Warner); back then the Leipzig Gewandhaus had a big, overripe sound that suits these pieces rather well. Very different, but just as worthwhile, is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s set for Chandos (review).

Let’s start with the concertos. Pianists Alexei Volodin, Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov took part in a most unusual experiment with Gergiev at the 2015 Proms; they played all five concertos in one concert. In preparation for this review I listened to off-air recordings of Nos. 3, 4 and 5, played by Trifonov, Volodin and Babayan respectively. It was clearly an electric night, made all the more so by the unique atmosphere of that great festival. Goodness, Gergiev and his Mariinsky team will have to work very hard to beat that.

What a pity that the hugely talented Trifonov isn’t the soloist in this Mariinsky account of the Third Piano Concerto, recorded in 2012. A pleasing blend of poetry and passion makes him a natural for the piece, as indeed it does Bavouzet. Matsuev is much less subtle - he's prone to crudity and excess - and his reading of Op. 26 confirms that view. The Andante – Allegro is spectacular but strangely sterile, and the Tema con variazioni has little of the feeling that Trifonov and Bavouzet find in the notes. I’d say Gergiev and Matsuev bring out the worst in each other – those Shostakovich concertos are a case in point – and the hard, close sound doesn’t help. I see from the booklet that The Classic Sound, responsible for earlier Mariinsky releases, aren't involved here.

Prokofiev’s Fourth Piano Concerto, like Ravel’s in D major, was commissioned by the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. He never performed the piece, which was only premiered three years after the composer’s death. In keeping with the tone of their cycle as a whole Béroff and his conductor Kurt Masur give a wonderfully extrovert account of this concerto. Yes, the piano and upper strings sound fierce at times, but the Leipzig orchestra's raspberry-blowing brass and the big bass drum are just splendid. The real star is Béroff, who plays with a heady mix of guts and glamour that does full justice to this volatile score.

Alas, Volodin’s performance, recorded at the Moscow Easter Festival in 2012, is much less appealing. Not only that, the sound has a dull, rather cavernous quality that obscures much of the music’s edge and effervescence. Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through the piece – I can’t recall a more somnolent Andante than this – and there’s absolutely none of the frisson one associates with a live concert. The real killer, though, is the cotton-wool sound; it’s just awful. The BBC did a much better job with that Prom, which has a strong sense of music-making in the raw as it were. Indeed, Volodin sounds like a different pianist, such was the energy and character of his playing then.

The change of soloist and venue for the Fifth Piano Concerto makes a difference, although focus and perspectives still aren’t ideal. Also, the piano sound is acceptable but the recording is bass heavy. Babayan is well up to the demands of the piece – what a mercurial Allegro con brio – but I longed for more personality in his playing. As Béroff so amply demonstrates emotion and technique can happily co-exist, even in such a wild and unpredictable context. Once again that Prom is a salutary reminder of what’s missing here.

I can’t help feeling that for an important series such as this production values aren’t as high as they should be. For instance, these concertos – recorded in a mix of PCM and DSD, not to mention 24/48 and 24/96 – are musically and technically deficient. Perhaps that's a result of impossible concert and recording schedules; after all, globe-trotting Gergiev is one of the busiest conductors on the planet. That said, a preliminary listen to the symphonies is quite encouraging. All of a sudden the orchestra has snapped into focus, and everything is where it should be. There’s weight without bloat, and telling timbres too.

Gergiev's Fourth Symphony, given here in its revised form, has a strong pulse, not to mention a deftness and sense of direction that I simply don’t hear in his concertos. The playing is much more alert – just listen to the nicely articulated pizzicati in the Moderato – and, dare I say it, there’life in the performance as well. Judging by his grunts Gergiev is unusually animated, too. Levity aside, his taut, wonderfully propulsive Allegro risoluto is the best thing I’ve heard thus far. However, it’s Kitaienko – aided by a recording of fearsome range and power – who bares the dark, conflicted soul of the piece. Indeed, his big, battering timps in the first movement and the scarifying finale are simply overwhelming.

The Fifth Symphony is often paired with the revised Fourth, as they are said to represent the horrors of war (No. 5) and its healing aftermath (No. 4). Gergiev certainly takes a softer view of Op. 112 than Kitaienko does, so I wondered if he’d be as accommodating with Op. 100. Not a chance; the gaunt climaxes of the Andante are thrilling and the score’s sudden alarums and excursions are very well judged. Also, the bass drum sounds like earth-shaking artillery, the cymbals like bursting shells; the effect is hair-raising.

The rest of Gergiev’s Fifth isn't quite so arresting. Yes, the Allegro marcato – whose edgy tunes always remind me of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho – is crisply done, and the Adagio is suitably stark in the climaxes, but thereafter tension ebbs and the performance becomes rather ordinary. Indeed, thst odd clacketing finale - I'm never sure what to make of it - seems curiously subdued. Predictably Kitaienko’s Fifth assaults the senses in a way that few rivals do. This is a very unforgiving view of the piece, with an amplitude and attack that one only glimpses with Gergiev. For a very well recorded Fifth, if not such a stark one, try Andrew Litton and the Bergen Phil on BIS (review), For me, though, Kitaienko's recording is the one to have. Incidentally, the latest incarnation of his Gürzenich set costs £15 or so; what a bargain!

I've no qualms about Gergiev’s Sixth Symphony, which is excellent; the elegiac character of the Allegro moderato is especially well caught and there’s real eloquence to the playing. Rhythms are nicely sprung and Gergiev has a fine grasp of the music’s architecture. He also delivers a more transparent, ‘aerated’ reading of this opener than most, and that allows one to appreciate Prokofiev’s orchestral skills all the more. The central Largo has wonderful shape and inwardness – the woodwind playing is superb – and the big moments are as crisp as one could wish. What a vital, vibrant Vivace, so full of life. The brass, timp and bass-drum players deserve special praise for their contributions here; ditto the recording team.

In many ways Gergiev’s Sixth reminds me of Sakari Oramo’s, which also majors in lightness and clarity (review). Kitaienko is tougher, and that’s underlined by a very explicit recording. In that sense his and Gergiev’s accounts of this symphony are complementary; indeed, I wouldn’t want to be without either. Broadly speaking the same applies to their respective performances of the Seventh Symphony. Gergiev is more about soft centres – what a wonderfully lyrical Moderato, and an unusually affectionate Allegretto – whereas Kitaienko emphasises the music’s harder edges. Kitaienko also brings a deeply Romantic sweep and swell to this opening movement, something that Gergiev doesn’t quite manage.

Clearly Kitaienko is not without heart in the Seventh or, for that matter, in any of these great symphonies; it’s just that he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, as Gergiev is wont to do. In Kitaienko’s case that makes for uniquely forceful and penetrating performances that resonate in the mind long after the last notes have faded. That’s why I’d pick Kitaienko every time; that said, I’d also want Gergiev’s Fourth and Sixth. As for the three concertos, look elsewhere for those. At least downloaders can winnow out the best bits, whereas CD buyers have to take the wheat and the chaff. Tough old world, isn’t it?

Now, if you already own Gergiev’s Philips box should you invest in this new series? Even without the concertos I'd say probably not. The earlier set isn't as well recorded - that intractable Barbican acoustic, I'm afraid - but those LSO performances are much better played and more strongly characterised than these Mariinsky ones. That makes Gergiev Mark 1 a very sensible choice, especially for those who might find Kitaienko too hot to handle.

The concertos are disappointing, but the symphonies are good; production values could be higher, though.

Dan Morgan

Previous reviews (MAR0549): Dave Billinge and Gwyn Parry-Jones



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