Valery Gergiev has in common with Bernstein that his charisma was recognized the moment he stepped on the podium, and it's no wonder that he became a superstar in the post-Soviet era. Having just reviewed Gergiev's recent Romeo and Juliet with the London Sym., I returned to this early version with the Kirov Orch. from 1990. Both are superlative, but the younger Gergiev had a more natural way with the score and was less prone to making a show piece of every number. Playing Prokofiev's complete ballet score was rare in the West. I attended a riveting performance by Gergiev and the Kirov, and the program notes said that the complete score had never before been played in Carnegie Hall.
What stands out about this reading is that Gergiev, an extremely intelligent thinker about the long line, handles the rise and fall of the ballet so that it doesn't peak too early, doesn't turn cloying, and never exhausts the listener (he's spoken to all these points in interviews, although the subject was Mahler). Each number is exciting, but it takes its place in a very satisfying overall scheme. No other reading that I know of is so successful on that front, not even Gergiev's remake. Prokofiev's music is scintillating, and it never lets up, but Gergiev balances the lesser climaxes with the greater ones. I apologize for sounding so abstract when the score is luscious, romantic, and swooningly gorgeous. Yet I think anyone who listens for it will notice how beautifully Gergiev has structured the performance. It's welcome in both his readings that he avoids vulgarity and luridness, always a temptation in this crowd-pleasing music.
I used to complain that the sound from Philips, as recorded in St. Petersburg, was a bit rough and coarse. The latest remstering has taken care of that, but you won't mistake the recording as a sonic blockbuster. It doesn't need to be. On its own, this is an early indication that Gergiev deserves his superstar status.