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Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat major Op.53 [22:19]
Alexei Volodin (piano)
Piano Concerto No.5 in G major Op.55 [21:34]
Sergei Babayan (piano)
Symphony No.4 in C major Op.112 (1947 version) [37:09]
Symphony No.6 in E flat major Op.111 [44:49]
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 [32:33]
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Moscow Conservatoire, Russia, 25 April 2012 (Symphony No.7 and Piano Concerto No.5); Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, St Petersburg, Russia, 9 April 2015 (Symphonies 4 and 6); Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, St Petersburg, Russia, 13 September 2015 (Piano Concerto No.4)
Hybrid SACD/CD Surround/Stereo - reviewed in surround
MARIINSKY MAR0577 SACD [81:02 + 77:22]

When reviewing the earlier Mariinsky issue of the Symphony No.5 and Piano Concerto No.3, I felt that neither performance really stood up to the competition but that the piano concerto did at least come over as a good performance. This issue has even less in its favour.

To start on a positive note, the two concertos are performed by their respective soloists with much vitality and skill, and the accompaniment shows Gergiev's usual attention to detail. It is just possible that, if the two SACDs had been available separately, the one containing the concertos (and Symphony No. 4) would have been recommendable. As it is, the presence of three depressing and dreary performances of the Symphonies 4, 6 and 7 make any such recommendation impossible. The Mariinsky orchestra sound tired and dispirited and it is Gergiev who must carry responsibility. The Fourth Symphony, in either version, is a problematic work but it has been proved in recent recordings from Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony that both the original and revised versions can be made to work extremely well and that the later version, over-expanded though it is, can be satisfying to hear. Though he takes only two minutes less than Gergiev, the increase in impact in Karabits' account is huge. Where Gergiev sounds laborious and stolid, Karabits is alive with details and rhythmic élan. Where Gergiev's engineers seem to have placed their microphones at distant corners of the hall with blankets over them, the Onyx team for Karabits have achieved impact and clarity despite being only CD stereo. I wish I could say that the two other symphonies are better, in fact they are worse: in the case of the Sixth, much, much worse. Gergiev's Sixth has to be the most dispiriting and sluggish account of a great and dramatic symphony I have heard in a long while. What was he thinking? He takes seven minutes longer than Karabits, six longer than Rozhdestvensky and still two minutes longer than the more relaxed Litton and Järvi, all of whom also inject much more drama and pathos. The Seventh is rescued a little by the sheer loveliness of its melodies but it still too slow in Gergiev's hands, and more importantly less rhythmically alive than the competition. I found myself listening through this set twice, so surprised was I at its shortcomings. To complete this sad tale, the engineers have made a poor job of the surround mix. As noted above the sound is distant and muddy with no sense of the acoustic at all. I tried a section in stereo and on headphones. More detail emerges in that mode but nothing can rescue the symphonic performances. For many years the stories have circulated that Gergiev was overdoing it and could not give so many performances without quality suffering: we heard this sometimes in London, but in general this is the sort of repertoire in which he excelled. This Mariinsky set is a disappointing let-down.

The advice is clear. For a modern recording of Prokofiev's symphonies buy Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, who are every bit as good as the Mariinsky and directed with much more insight by the orchestra's principal conductor. For the sake of consistency I should remind readers that when I reviewed it nearly two years ago I noted that the recording of No.7 from Bournemouth was disappointingly hole-in-the-middle stereo. I have listened again to check and it really is very left-right. The Fourth and Sixth however are, like all the others, well spread recordings with no such oddities. The whole cycle on four CDs is a landmark recording putting this Mariinsky series in the shade.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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