Matsuev and Gergiev Offer Impressive Prokofiev

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

I had the opportunity to see Valery Gergiev conduct Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony with the Mariinsky Orchestra several years ago at Carnegie Hall, a lightweight and shallow performance, unimpressively played. This latest version is far superior. Tempos are basically swift–at times perhaps too much so. The first-movement coda starts at a clip that sounds as though it will be seriously underplayed, but it gathers power as it goes and turns out to be quite satisfying.

The climax of the slow movement similarly finds Gergiev rushing where Prokofiev only asks for a slightly more animated tempo in the lead-up, and arguably for no acceleration at all when the moment in question arrives (it recapitulates the opening motive in 9/8 and sounds best at the adagio of Tempo 1)–but again, the result turns out to be convincingly different. Elsewhere, especially in the second and fourth movements, the playing is excellent, and the interpretation crisp and very exciting. The mad dash to the finish has seldom been done better.

I have no criticisms whatsoever regarding the Third Piano Concerto. Denis Matsuev is dazzling wherever digital dexterity is required, which is everywhere, and it’s incredibly refreshing to hear a performance of the work at tempos under nine minutes for two out of the three movements–closer to the composer’s own version. Gergiev and Matsuev beautifully capture the brittle wit of the first movement’s second subject, with its dry castanets, and in the second movement the allegro giusto fifth variation is among the best you’ll hear. The finale also has both an unusual degree of excitement plus a welcome unity thanks to Matsuev’s refusal to let the music languish in the central lyrical interlude. It’s a tremendous performance, gripping from first note to last.

Sonically, I find the engineering of this SACD a bit problematic, and it continues to amaze me that these forces can’t seem to get truly excellent sound. In the concerto the piano is well forward, with sections of the orchestra (trumpets) relegated to the outskirts of the sonic frame. In both works treble frequencies sound muffled at the very top, lending an unwelcome touch of dullness. The performances deserve better, for they truly are very fine, and the concerto is a show-stopper. Recommended, then, despite minor reservations regarding the sound.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Concerto: Argerich/Abbado (DG); Symphony: Karajan (DG)


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