I was thrilled to see this release coming, for several reasons. This is the greatest of Prokofiev's ballets, filled with music encompassing not only the central romantic tragedy but also a great deal of drama and humor, even parody. The composer's inspiration seldom flags throughout this lengthy score. And Gergiev is today's preeminent interpreter of Russian music in general and Prokofiev in particular. His 1990 Philips recording of substantial excerpts with the [then] Kirov Orchestra -- which has recently discarded that Soviet-era appellation and returned to its pre-revolutionary Mariinsky title -- has long been my favorite of many versions of this music. I was eager to hear his take on the complete score.
This is of course a live concert recording, but it is essentially symphonic in conception. Some of the tempi would be unsuitable if actually accompanying dancers, but in most cases they work fine in a symphonic performance. As I have written several times recently, I am generally pleased that the (economics-driven) trend in recording classical music has shifted away from dedicated "studio" sessions in favor of live concerts. Great orchestras and conductors do not generally make serious mistakes, and such live performances tend to convey a greater sense of excitement. It's not hard to understand that musicians get more involved playing in front of an audience than just an array of microphones.
In this case, however, I find the live performance something of a mixed bag, especially in the lengthy first act. Some of my favorite numbers strike me here as curiously under-energized. Generally that feeling wanes as the performance continues, and this is still the most recommendable recording of the full score. But I can't help thinking that were this a traditional recording session rather than a live concert, Gergiev might well have gone back and done more exciting versions of those parts. I went back to that 1990 recording, and in fact virtually every number on that CD is superior in beauty and dramatic excitement to this current release.
I must also attribute some of those differences to the two orchestras involved. The LSO is of course a world-class ensemble, and they play with real affection and commitment. But in this music, I don't believe any non--Russian band can compete on even terms with the Mariinsky. Having the music in their blood really does make a big difference. Since Gergiev now heads both orchestras, in my perfect world he would record Russian music with the Mariinsky and non-Russian works with the LSO. Dream on, Wayne -- that's not how business decisions are made.
The two-channel SACD sound here is very good, with an impressive dynamic range, lovely instrumental sounds, and a large, well filled soundstage. And although the LSO players may not capture all of that "Russian-ness" I crave in this music, they play with great sensitivity throughout. They certainly give the conductor what he asks for.
Reading over this review, I realize that I seem to be "damning with faint praise" what is in fact a most recommendable recording. Any fan of this score who wants to hear everything it contains should buy this set. I will certainly return to it from time to time, to hear those many numbers that do not get included in excerpted versions. But real fans of the composer should also acquire that 1990 Phillips CD to get a full measure of the greatest moments in this wonderful ballet.