PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3; Symphony No. 5 – Denis Matsuev, p./ Mariinsky Orch./ Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky

PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3; Symphony No. 5 – Denis Matsuev, p./ Mariinsky Orch./ Valery Gergiev – Mariinsky multichannel SACD MAR0549, 70:38 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (3/11/14) *****:

We just reviewed pianist Matsuev in the first two Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos, and here he is again in the Prokofiev Third, also with Gergiev. These are two of the Russian composer’s most popular works, and the Fifth Symphony has been called one of the most important Russian symphony of the twentieth century. This is Matsuev’s fourth recording for the Mariinsky label; he’s one of the leading present pianists in Russia.

The Third Concerto has gained the most critical acclaim of the five Prokofiev wrote. Great clarity and a lively vitality distinguish the work and has made it popular with audiences. He wrote most of the work during a summer spent in 1921 in Brittany. Prokofiev balances his lovely lyrical passages with witty dissonances, and the orchestra takes a greater part than in many piano concertos. I am especially familiar with the second movement “Theme and Variations” because it was the theme of the afternoon classical program on the station where I got my start in broadcasting. While Byron Janis puts in a sizzling performance of this concerto (also recorded in Russia) it is on a Mercury three-channel SACD lacking the surround, and Matsuev does a superb job in hi-res surround with Gergiev’s backing.

I am also especially familiar with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony because I played in the percussion section when we performed it (and very well I must say) at the University of Iowa. He conceived of the four-movement work while World War II was still raging. He said then he intended it as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit.”  In spite of that quote, which probably pleased the Soviet authorities, although this is a big patriotic piece, the work is full of some of his most strongly acerbic and ironic-sounding music, alternating with his usual beautiful lyrical sections. The percussion section gets a good workout, especially on the electrifying coda to the first movement. The second movement has an insistent scherzo framing a 3/4-time country dance. The closing movement is mostly a rondo with a playful main theme contrasted with two more calm themes. Towards the end there are low trumpet interjections and whole thing ends on a most ironic tone.  Serge Koussevitsky premiered the Symphony with the Boston Symphony in 1945 before it was ever heard in the Soviet Union.

My favorite recording of the work has been the RCA Victor Living Stereo vinyl with Jean Martinon conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. It stands up well to this Gergiev entry but doesn’t have quite the rough energy and acerbic feeling that is right up Gergiev’s alley in this work, as well as its clarity.  My comparison was rather close because I had matched the volume levels of the Oppo player and my turntable quite closely, and found a way to play the two-channel vinyl as Pro Logic IIs surround to match with the surround sound of the SACD.

—John Sunier

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