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
Pdf booklet included MARIINSKY MAR0549 SACD [70:33] Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto for the left hand (No. 4) in B flat major, Op. 53 (1931)
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
Pdf booklet included MARIINSKY MAR0577 SACD [158:00]
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
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
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
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
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 Allegrorisoluto 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
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
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,
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.