A big, brawny, red-blooded Russian performance of the Scythian Suite and a relatively restrained but stately reading of Alexander Nevsky get undermined by sonics that might peel plaster at forty feet. By the time it was over, the album had fairly thrilled and almost deafened me at the same time. A bit frustrating, you know?
But let me start at the beginning. In its plainness, the disc cover is among the least attractive I've seen in years, and the packaging offers no track information until you dig into the accompanying booklet. So the packaging has already annoyed me before I even start to listen to the disc. Then, the program begins with the rather noisy Scythian Suite, which looks as though it was Prokofiev's attempt in 1915 to out-Stravinsky Stravinsky. Scythian is a ballet in Prokofiev's early mode but with little of Stravinsky's (or Prokofiev's later) subtlety. Gergiev and his Kirov players do what they can with it, and, indeed, it comes off with the combination of reflection and ferocity that the score deserves, whether you like it or not.
Finally, by track five we get to the star of the show, Alexander Nevsky, the cantata for mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra that Prokofiev wrote for the 1939 film of the same name by Sergei Eisenstein. The movie and the music celebrate the deeds of an ancient, thirteenth-century Russian warrior, leader, and folk hero.
But that sound. Philips recorded it live at the opening concert of the first Moscow Easter Festival, May 5, 2002, and maybe because they did it live did them in. While the stereo imaging is fine, if a bit close and constricted, the upper midrange and lower treble fairly toll the rafters, and with little compensating lower-octave response to offset it, it can be deadly. Unless your playback system is somewhat soft or dull to begin with, you may find yourself leaving the room with your ears ringing.
For years a direct rival to this disc has been a DG Originals release of the same material by Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony, which comes in at mid price. By comparison, Abbado's performance is marginally more sympathetic, more heartfelt, and more moving; and even better, the sound appears more naturally balanced, if somewhat artificially imaged. Nevertheless, if we were taking a vote, I'd definitely go with Abbado.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here: