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Releases mark Prokofiev's death

August 17, 2003|Mark Swed; Richard S. Ginell; Chris Pasles; Allan Ulrich

The 50th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev's death hasn't gotten much attention locally, but there are always CDs. Record companies, even in these days of fewer releases, have seldom seen an anniversary they didn't like. Below, some Times critics take a look at major releases of the Prokofiev year.

-- Mark Swed

Sergei Prokofiev: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition

Various artists (Warner Classics)

**

Assigning stars to this 24-CD set is all but impossible. Individual performances range considerably, but overall it is a disappointment. Warner has raided the catalog of the labels it owns -- Erato and Teldec -- and picked up a few other items here and there. At its best, the set offers a welcome reissue of Mstislav Rostropovich's impassioned set of the seven symphonies. But you also are stuck with the five piano concertos played by a crudely banging soloist, Vladimir Kraniev; a crudely compliant conductor, Dmitri Kitaenko; and a so-so Frankfurt orchestra.

Only three of the eight piano sonatas, in decent if unstellar performances, find their way into the edition, while room is made for no fewer than four versions of Kent Nagano's engaging performance of "Peter and Wolf" (overlaid with English, Spanish, French and German narration). One treasure is Igor Markevich's exciting performance of the concert suite from the seldom-heard modernist ballet "The Steel Step." The single opera is Prokofiev's most monumental -- "War and Peace" -- in Rostropovich's account, which was once highly prized but has been superseded by Valery Gergiev's with his Kirov forces.

An irresistible curiosity is the bonus disc of rare archive recordings. On piano rolls, Prokofiev percussively hammers out Rachmaninoff's G-Minor Prelude, compellingly improvises on themes from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and sings a couple of songs from his score to Sergei Eisenstein's film "Ivan the Terrible." A true composer, he croaks like a frog.

-- M.S.

Prokofiev: "Alexander Nevsky," "Scythian" Suite

Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano). Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Maryinsky Theatre, St.

Petersburg. Valery Gergiev, conductor. (Philips)

****

Prokofiev: "Alexander Nevsky," "Pushkiniana," music from "Hamlet" and "Ivan the Terrible"

Irina Gelahova (mezzo-soprano). Russian State Symphony, Stanislavsky Chorus. Dmitry Yablonsky, conductor. (Naxos)

*** 1/2

Way up on everyone's list of the greatest film scores ever written -- as well as being one of Prokofiev's most inspired works, period -- the "Alexander Nevsky" cantata has just received two formidable new recordings from Russia. If pressed, you'd have to say that Gergiev's is the more imaginative and better played of the two. The Kirov brasses give it a snarl and a bite; the chorus sings "Arise, Ye Russian People" with a lusty kick; "The Battle on the Ice" builds menacingly, picking up speed as Gergiev spotlights all kinds of hidden dissonant streaks. Yet Yablonsky also has a fervent Russian chorus and fine engineering, and "Arise" and "Battle" are pushed hard and fast; the latter is like a runaway train.

The biggest difference is in the couplings -- and here, Naxos get the nod for enterprise, resurrecting such Prokofiev esoterica as seven characteristically quirky chips from three aborted Pushkin projects that were assembled into a "Pushkiniana" Suite by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Meanwhile, Gergiev weighs in with a bold, unique interpretation of the wild "Scythian" Suite, slowing the tempo in the first movement way down to bring out a wealth of chilling details. Given Naxos' low price, buyers may be tempted to get both discs.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Prokofiev: "Classical" Symphony; "Romeo and Juliet" Suite No. 2; Suite from "The Love for Three Oranges"

St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Yuri Temirkanov, conductor. (RCA Red Seal)

***

Temirkanov takes a rather romantic approach to the "Classical" Symphony, enforcing long, even lines; muted dynamic shifts; gentle terminations and even a certain elegance. But he makes up for it by being far more aggressive in the familiar Second Suite from "Romeo and Juliet" and downright relentless in the Suite from "The Love for Three Oranges." The performances were recorded in 1991 and 1992 but now are just being released. The sonic range is impressive, however, with the "Montagues and Capulets" section of the "Romeo" ballet suite viscerally bold.

-- Chris Pasles

Prokofiev: "Romeo and Juliet"

Royal Philharmonic. Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor. (Decca)

**

Only the 50th anniversary of the composer's death can explain Universal Music's release, more than 12 years after it was taped, of this performance of the ubiquitous 1938 ballet score. Ashkenazy's reading scarcely compares, interpretively or technically, with Decca's powerhouse 1973 Lorin Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra rendering, still in the active catalog at a "twofer" price. This recording misses the lushness and almost hysterical intensity of the best readings; the sonic picture is comparatively recessive, the RPO's strings lack tonal luster, the ensemble falters and conductor Ashkenazy, who breathed fire when he recorded the piano reduction of this music, comes to grips with the orchestral original only at its most lyrical moments.

-- Allan Ulrich

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