COMPOSERS: Serge Prokofiev
ALBUM TITLE: Serge Prokofiev 50th Anniversary Edition
WORKS: Vol. 1: Symphonies
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-49634-2
The first thing to point out is that, in this year commemorating the 50th anniversary of Prokofiev’s death, no other company has so far shown signs of doing him the honours quite like Warner. Then comes the nagging question: since only a quarter of the performances on offer here are really up to the mark, was it worth the effort? The presentation offers unity, the endorsement of Prokofiev’s elder son Sviatoslav and a lavish display of photographs, many of them unfamiliar – all fine until closer inspection reveals signs of hasty assemblage. Of the performances, fewer than half are consistently up to scratch, while the rest – crucially in the case of the STAGE WORKS AND FILM SCORES box – scrape the bottom of the interpretative barrel and only seem to have been included just to have a work represented.
Consistency does not in itself offer a guarantee of the first-rate. Mstislav Rostropovich’s late Eighties cycle of the SYMPHONIES often has its heart in a right and serious place, and he cares more than most about Prokofiev’s dark angels: the spectral-fantastic variations of the Second Symphony, all of the Third and an achingly sad Seventh with the right, quiet coda are among the finest on offer. The generally slow speeds, though, weigh heavily on the Classical Symphony, the lengthy revised version of the Fourth and an edit-ridden Sixth, the depths of which Rostropovich was to plumb more successfully on several occasions with the London Symphony Orchestra in live performances. Here, the players of the French National Orchestra manage brightness best, with some ringing trumpet-playing, and serve Rostropovich with an authentic Russian brass sound in the weightier ensembles. They burn for him, too, in a WAR AND PEACE where the make-over has only got as far as the cover; the Frenchification of the track listing and titling in the booklet, which would have been met with some amusement by Tolstoy, remains. As for the performance, if you can see beyond the faded-dowager exterior of the (by then) veteran Vishnevskaya’s Natasha to the still-touching girl within, the rest of the cast is first-rate and Rostropovich’s labour of love rises to perhaps the finest war scenes on disc (complete until the very final scene).
And that, perhaps, might be enough of the theatrical Prokofiev on this edition. One of the two performances of suites ‘borrowed’ from EMI, Markevitch’s vintage (mono) Pas d’acier, brims with surplus vitality and brilliant gestures which only the other, Tennstedt’s Kijé, comes close to matching. In the drama department, every other interpretation on Vol. 3 falls short of the best, though the Prodigal Son Suite with Lawrence Foster’s Monte-Carlo Philharmonic, if deliberate, boasts some sharp wind and brass characterisation, while the elegant side of Armin Jordan’s Romeo and Juliet (Suisse Romande Orchestra) almost inclines one to turn a deaf ear to the underpowered violence as well as the under-energised youthfulness of his heroine. The Cinderella sequence as presented here (Strasbourg PO/Alain Lombard) makes no dramatic sense, and the clumsy cut-and-paste antics of the ‘Galop’ would be right at the bottom of my own highlights list. Kurt Masur’s Alexander Nevsky (Leipzig Gewandhaus) is the most unidiomatic performance of all, with the Latvian choir a million miles away, stylistically speaking, from their neighbours; and I hardly need point out the anomaly of four Peter and the Wolfs so that English, German, French and Spanish listeners can take their pick over two CDs; not one of the narrators (Patrick Stewart in the English-language version) is really worth taking pleasure in for his or her own sake.
The INSTRUMENTAL AND CHAMBER box begins with perhaps the finest playing in the entire set, Vadim Repin and Boris Berezovsky hauntingly attuned to the distant voices of the harrowing First Violin Sonata. Repin in 1995 may not have had the warmth of tone to carry the violin arrangement of the Flute Sonata, but he’s infinitely preferable to an inexplicably dull-toned Jean-Pierre Rampal in the original. The selection of piano sonatas is really half-baked – how to justify the absence of the Sixth? – and though there are fascinating subtleties in Steven De Groote’s Eighth, it doesn’t tell the full weighty story as Russian pianists seem so well to understand it. Three cheers, though, for the presence of the Berlin Soloists’ first-rate Quintet, which should win new admirers for this fascinating score from the mid-Twenties.
No one, at least, should be too disappointed by the CONCERTOS box. A slight recorded veil around the expert nuancing of Vladimir Kraniev can be attractive in the mysteries of the Second Piano Concerto; the work’s considerable technical challenges seem to pose no problems, either. And though no single Kraniev performance of the five piano concertos scales the heights of an Argerich or an Alexeev, it’s a companionable sequence. Warner was spoilt for choice in the violin concertos; I think most listeners would have been happy to hear both performances from live-wire Maxim Vengerov (heard here in the First Concerto) and the rather more searching Repin. Rostropovich’s 1987 Symphony-Concerto bears the seal of its first interpreter, but there’s little of the cohesive drive you find in his earlier performances; still, even Rostropovich at second-best is worth more than most cellists in excelsis.
The one truly extraordinary coup of the edition, a bonus disc, is remarkable not so much for the piano-roll performances made by Prokofiev in the Twenties – why on earth weren’t these recorded in state-of-the-art sound? – but for his rollicking delivery of two songs from Ivan the Terrible. You even hear the master’s voice in an American interview – sticking his neck out about the state of Soviet music – and in a more matter-of-fact Russian broadcast. Now more of that really would have made it all worthwhile.