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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Russian Revisit

CAN YOU EVER RECAPTURE the thrill of a first-time experience? Second visits often have a lot to live up to, which also applies when musicians re-record favorite works. Conductor Valery Gergiev won his appointment as the London Symphony’s principal conductor thanks to his outstanding series of the complete Prokofiev symphonies in 2004, which were recorded during those concerts and issued to great acclaim.

Now he’s got another Fifth Symphony to offer, recorded eight years later and with the Mariinsky Orchestra, from the St. Petersburg theater where Gergiev is artistic director. If the performance seems a shade less exciting than his LSO release, it’s because the earlier one brims with a fineness of orchestral texture that rarely makes it onto recordings. What we have with the Mariinsky ensemble is in itself a triumph, sculpted more as a four-movement journey than the earlier version’s spiky sight-seeing tour.

The greatest interpretive challenge is to balance the composer’s lyricism with his (usually sardonic) wit, at which Gergiev is masterful, notably in the bumptious scherzo and the movement that follows, an adagio. The latter is a brooding meditation on a sinewy theme that grows loud and uncooperative by the movement’s end, and to make sense of it means unraveling a tangle of technical elements, including the sounds-wrong harmonies and unexpected dynamic changes. As the most familiar of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies (eight, if you count the re-worked fourth), it nevertheless can pass by the ears pretty easily. Gergiev’s new recording helps remind us of the riches packed into the piece.

Certainly that’s the case with the CD’s companion piece, the Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s the most familiar of Prokofiev’s five, with a huge catalogue of recordings that includes the composer’s own. It helped make a star out of William Kapell, is at the core of Martha Argerich’s not-expansive repertory, recently enjoyed a dynamic reading by Lang Lang, and has an earlier Gergiev version with Alexander Toradze, part of a 1996 complete-concertos set with the Kirov Orchestra.

That proved to be as definitive a set as there can be, supplanting Vladimir Ashkenazy’s much earlier one in my affections. But Gergiev has returned with pianist Denis Matsuev, with whom he’s recorded discs of Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, and they bring a manic energy to the piece that shaves four minutes off the playing time of the earlier version.

Listen to the second movement, a theme and variations. It lulls you into its charming grasp with a meditative opening, then ambles through a kaleidoscope of changes with increasing awareness – which is to say that each new variation is built upon what came before, for a persuasive cumulative effect. Which immediately launches the Allegro ma non troppo finale which, if it isn’t as non troppo as some might wish, celebrates the virtuosity of the piano writing with impressive clarity.

Such a pair of warhorses has to fight for attention on the sales shelf – there’s plenty else out there, some of it virtually free – but Gergiev lives up to his reputation as a nonpareil Prokofiev interpreter, well supported by his Mariinsky forces. Recording quality is clean and bright, and the physical disc is a Super-Audio combo, giving an expansive sense of surround to the fanatical few who are accordingly geared.

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, Symphony No. 5
Denis Matsuev, pianist; Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor
Mariinsky MAR0549

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