The two contenders for the best "War and Peace" are this 1993 Gergiev set (on 3 CDs) and Rostropovich's 1989 recording (on 4 CDs) for ERato. The lines seem evenly drawn with the critics. Those who favor Rostropovich (whom the dying Prokofiev entrusted with the opera) like his impassioned conducting and Vishnevskaya's ardent portrayl of Natasha, despite the fact that she was twenty years too old for the part. Those who favor Gergiev point to the evenness of his singing cast and the psychological refinement of each character. I can accept both viewpoints. If you have the resources, you might buy the Gergiev for the "Peace" scenes in the drawing rooms and ballrooms, the Rostropovich for the "War" scenes that occupy the second half of the opera. In that regard Gergiev has the advantage of better music, since Prokofiev originally intended to portray only the personal, romantic parts of the novel. War came as an afterthought when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.
The work itself continues to have problems. No one should come ot it expecting Tolstoy's novel and its moving wisdom. When Prokofiev was composing the opera in the mid-Forties, his inspiraiton was variable. The great Fifth Sym. had just been written in the sumemr of 1941, but that was his last indisputable masterpiece. "War and Peace" contains a feeble Overture, included here by Gergiev but omitted whenever he stages the opera. There are patriotic choruses straight out of Soviet wartime propaganda, clearly aimed at Hitler more than Napoleon. And in general the melodic inspiration falls well short of Romeo and Juliet--the more delicate music, of which there is a lot on CD 1, sounds like outtakes from Prokofiev's fitfully inspired Cinderella ballet.
War and Peace works best if you have seen its epic spectacle onstage, so I sympathize with the reviewers who recommend the DVD instead. Coming to the work cold, with no visual memories of Moscow burning, Natasha's delirious dancing at the ball, Napoleon in retreat with half an army onstage, a listener may get fairly bored. Prokofiev found a middle-of-the-road idiom that has few pinnacles, presumably because of the daunting four hours of stage business he had to compose for. As a work of craft, War and Peace is admirable, but without the epic spectacle, its musical thinness shows thorugh.