COMPOSERS: Sergei Prokofiev
ALBUM TITLE: Prokofiev
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 (1947 version), 6 & 7; Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5
PERFORMER: Alexei Volodin, Sergei Babayan (piano); Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: Mariinsky MAR 0577 (hybrid CD/SACD)
I was less than enthusiastic about Valery Gergiev’s recording of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony on the Mariinsky label (reviewed June 2014). But this second instalment in what now appears to be a complete cycle of the composer’s piano concertos and symphonies is another matter. Here soloists, conductor and orchestra seem fully engaged, delivering strongly characterised performances of great emotional depth and musical insight.
Critics often dismiss Prokofiev’s final two piano concertos as less musically substantial than the Second and Third. Yet hearing them here, I was struck by the dexterity of orchestration and quality of their musical invention. Alexei Volodin (in the Fourth) and Sergei Babayan (in the Fifth) approach the fast movements with mercurial wit and dazzling clarity of fingerwork. Both performers allow Prokofiev’s natural lyricism to come to the fore in the respective slow movements, the Fifth in particular projecting an intensity of feeling at its climax that presages the later composer’s style.
Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra accompany with razor-sharp rhythmic precision and play the three post-war symphonies with conviction and commitment. In comparison to some other interpreters who make the revised Fourth sound bloated and discursive, I was particularly impressed by the clarity of texture and structural lucidity achieved here. In the Seventh, Gergiev is no less convincing, projecting the work’s tragic dimensions without imposing a hint of self-pity or over-indulgence. More controversial is the extraordinarily expansive tempo adopted for the first movement of the Sixth, a good deal slower than in the earlier LSO recording. This approach takes some getting used to, particularly since it seems to contradict the composer’s specified marking of Allegro moderato. On the other hand, a more epic unfolding of the symphonic argument brings to the fore the music’s essentially tragic and doom-laden character.