La Scena Musicale

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Prokofiev: The Symphonies

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / Dimitrji Kitajenko
Phoenix 136 / 137 / 138 / 139 / 140 (5 CD – 282 min 53 s)
***** $$

In praise of Sergei Prokofiev and with all due homage to Chuck Berry:

Ridin’ around in my automobile,
Box set beside me at the wheel,
Sergei P’s Number One at the turn of a mile,
My curiosity runnin’ wild.
Cruising and playing the stereo,
Discovering what we need to know.
Hail! Hail! Gürzenich,
And Dmitrij K wielding the stick.
Drive for five and I gotta say,
This is the best there is today.

Auditioning recordings while operating a moving vehicle is inherently unsafe and very bad for fuel economy. Busy reviewers routinely take such risks and invariably repeat the exercise in a suitably equipped listening room at home. Most collectors appreciate Prokofiev’s First and Fifth Symphonies. Yet as Benjamin Ivry points out in his fine booklet note, “At their best, his symphonies sound like exhaled, dramatized history, capturing and evoking a point in time,” and “A complete set of Prokofiev’s symphonies provides a satisfyingly all-encompassing look at the composer’s creativity throughout the years of his mastery.” Kitajenko and the Gürzenich have already given us an incisive Shostakovich symphony cycle of uncommon power (Capriccio SACD) and it is not surprising that they have come out on top with the Prokofiev set. Their accounts of Numbers 1, 5, 6 and 7 are within striking distance of benchmark status and the ‘orphans’ (Nos 2, 3 and both versions of No 4) receive performances that should persuade listeners of the superior quality of these neglected works. Kitajenko goes beyond issues of tempo and dynamic emphasis here. He makes his marvelously honed players recreate these challenging pieces with sparkling wit and genuine affection. At the moment, this is not only the best Prokofiev cycle on the market but also the least expensive (although Jarvi’s RSNO set from Chandos is due to appear in a bargain box at roughly the same cost as the newcomer). This is another winning entry from Phoenix Edition of Vienna.

- Stephen Habington

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