Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7

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COMPOSERS: Prokofiev
LABELS: Philips
ALBUM TITLE: Prokofiev
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7
PERFORMER: London SO/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: 475 7655
There was a real sense of occasion when Gergiev conducted these performances over two weekends in London’s Barbican early in May 2004 and a few days scattered in between; it was on the strength of these that the LSO decided to appoint the Russian as their next principal conductor. Amazingly, this is the orchestra’s first complete recording of Prokofiev’s symphonies (including here both versions of the Fourth Symphony), although the LSO has performed them all several times – notably during the 1991 centenary season conducted by Rostropovich. The LSO has also made very fine if sometimes idiosyncratic recordings of several of the symphonies under Walter Weller and Claudio Abbado (both on Decca but no longer available).

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Gergiev’s performances here are never less than compelling and – given their live origin – are remarkable for the clarity of textures and the always purposefully shaped phrasing of even minor details. For me, the cycle’s greatest success is the compelling accounts of the Fourth Symphony, especially the revised version where I was convinced for the first time that Prokofiev managed to transform themes from his Prodigal Son ballet into a symphonic drama rather than an emasculated suite.

There are, however, some quibbles and reservations. With some of the recordings made from a single performance, there are inevitably some blemishes. Most distracting are Gergiev’s murmurings and breath suckings during Variation 4 of the Second Symphony (track 2, from 8:29); in that movement, in any case, I prefer Kuchar’s more atmospheric account (his Second is a remarkable exception in an otherwise mediocre cycle). Gergiev’s Classical (No. 1) is graceful and lovingly played, but rather lacking in wit – though the Glinka-inspired finale, taken at a cracking pace, is a triumph. No. 5 is most impressive at the end of the first movement with its explosive percussion, but often feels undercharacterised and lacking in atmosphere compared to Tennstedt’s remarkable performance with the Bavarian RSO. In No. 6, the cycle’s greatest and most tragic work, Gergiev is at his best in the finale, capturing the terror lurking just beneath its superficial jollity as well as the black humour of the tuba’s attempt to ‘shadow’ the woodwind; but the return of the first movement’s pastoral oboe/cor anglais theme lacks the quality of heart-aching nostalgia found by Ashkenazy with the Cleveland Orchestra, who therefore pack an even bigger emotional punch at the Sixth’s horrific denouement.

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All said, this is one of the best cycles now available, certainly one that Prokofiev and Gergiev fans should, and almost certainly will, buy. But those in search of excellent performances of individual works are urged to try the benchmarks listed below. Daniel Jaffé.