This set has good claim to be one of the very finest available. Jarvi directs superbly well and the members of Royal National Orchestra of Scotland reveal themselves as a really well integrated gtoup of musicians that exhibits a high degree of virtuosity. The weighty and difficult 2 Symphony, for example, is delivered with verve and and alert intelligence that clarifies the thick textues and makes great sense of the music. Symphony 6, for me the most moving of the set, receives a spine-tinglingly good performace. At any price this set is highly competitive but at the present price asked for by Amazon it is superb value.
These symphonies, recorded between 1984 and 1985 have justifiably dominated the Prokofiev catalogue both individually and as a set ever since. The combination of Jarvi at a particularly vibrant time in his recording career coupled with a rejuvenated Scottish orchestra and both truthfully balanced and enhanced by Chandos' outstandingly clear recording technology makes for a potent mix.
All the symphonies are very rewarding musically with the probable exception of the second which earned a famous critical comment from the composer himself - see below.
The first, a student work of enormous ability, has always been popular possibly because of its nod to the Classical period as indicated by its title and shown by its construction and easy-flowing melodies. Jarvi steers a sure course through its apparent simplicity with sufficient grace and good humour.
The second symphony has the distinction of Prokofiev commenting that he was not sure if he liked it but it was what he had intended. The music is reminiscent of his 'industrial' period with the orchestra being used in an aggressive and seemingly mechanical way to portray a driven society. Jarvi's performance has all the power and aggression but is also able to make this more palatable than in some other cases.
Symphony 3 is one of Prokofiev's most imaginative and wayward symphonic scores. This is largely the result of its connection with the earlier opera 'The Fiery Angel.' That story involved a young girl obsessed with visions of a fiery angel. The story explores black magic, diabolical possession, exorcisms and the final burning of the girl at the stake for trafficking with evil spirits, thus becoming herself the fiery angel of her own visions. Prokofiev's music in the opera closely matches this strange and grotesque story so it is not surprising that these very imaginative musical concepts and strange textures when recycled in the symphony make the symphony rather unusual. Nevertheless it remains firmly lyrical in its nature and some of its otherworldly textures are not far from those found in his sometimes mysterious violin concerto 1. Jarvi and his orchestra prove to be admirably capable of delivering both the power and mystery of this score.
The fourth symphony also has links with stage works, the middle two movements being essentially a revisiting of the Prodigal Son ballet. The fourth is also published in two versions, both included here. The earlier 1930 version was considerably enlarged in the 1947 version. Both are very lyrical works sharing the same relationship to the ballet as mentioned above and both receive good and perceptive performances.
The sixth is generally reckoned to be the finest of the symphonies although the fifth is generally the most popular along with the first. The sixth was the first to be issued in this set and was immediately much praised as being especially fine. That leaves the seventh.The seventh has also two versions with a choice of endings although this box only offers the more usual and familiar ending. Jarvi ensures that this last symphony is not seen as a tailing off of inspiration as it is sometimes perceived.
This set has dominated the recommended lists ever since it was first issued. To that must now be added the equally superb set with Kitajenko which is newer, has a heavier sound which is partly to do with interpretation and partly to do with a fuller recorded sound. Both of these sets are equally fine while being quite different in their readings. Keen collectors would be the richer musically by owning both as they clearly complement each other. Purchasers looking for just one set could be equally content with either set.
So, as someone who has been familiar with these works in excess of 40 years and via several alternative recordings, I can sum this Jarvi set up as being of special musical quality and excellent sound. As such it should give most purchasers interested in this repertoire many years of pleasure and satisfaction.
on 31 March 2013
This really is an amazing set and I'm sure it will recieve legendary status for these works.
Jarvi and the Scottish National Orchestra really live the pieces, and as a result you couldn't really wish for more powerfully engaging performances. The playing is full of the bombastic energy required in the many aggressive passages in the 2nd/3rd symphony, but also so full of the charm and delight so beautifully written in the 1st symphony, trio of the 5th or slow movement of the 7th symphony for example. The balance is excellent and always well controlled, allowing all sections of the orchestra to shine. The brass section in particular is extremely impressive, you will be left in amazed awe at how the trumpets of this orchestra can soar right over the texture with such ease and passion! The percussion section must also be given much credit, they play with such clarity, and such thrill!! The climaxes of the 6th symphony for example, the sheer power of the section is just overwhelming.
The balance and sound quality really contribute to every instrument being able to be heard, even in such complex orchestration as the end of the 5th symphony for example, each layer is audible, and each instrument is allowed a perfect prominence. Especially the bass instruments (including the bass drum, I love how Prokofiev emphasizes using this fantastic instrument often), and the glorious brass as mentioned before. The recorded sound allows a massive volume, and is very resonant (in a good way), and perhaps less dynamic contrast can be achieved, especially at a particularly soft level. But this does not affect the enjoyment of these warm, thrilling, frightening and powerful performances.
I am sure these will become classics and I look forward to returning to them many times in the future. The best I have heard from Jarvi, and a massively high standard has been set for performances of these symphonies now! Highly highly recommended!
Complete sets of someone's symphonies or sonatas are not a commodity that I deal in very much. Invariably, something in the collection is done more to my liking elsewhere, so I prefer in general to collect the works individually. However I have two good reasons for buying Jarvi's set of the Prokofiev symphonies, the more important of these being that I wanted to hear them all from one interpreter's viewpoint, provided it was the right interpreter. How would I recognise this kind of interpreter? Partly from the reviews I have read of course, but also because I happen to own Jarvi's account of the second symphony, the most uncompromising of the series, and I found in it an affinity with this vehement and unfriendly music that was exactly what I was looking for. The score is not all so hostile by any means, indeed the theme for variations is Prokofiev in his most beautiful lyric mode. Jarvi handles that to my liking also, so I took the chance on his complete set, wanting to settle in my mind once and for all what I thought of Prokofiev as a symphonist. In general, one criterion that should not be applied is how one `rates' or `ranks' Jarvi among conductors. That kind of thing is based on an assessment of all his work, these symphonies included, and belongs in biographies and obituaries. The quality of the orchestra is a legitimate consideration, but not in my opinion all that important. The SNO may not be the equal of the LSO, but the standard today is so high that we need not lose much sleep over that. Indeed I prefer Mravinsky's readings of the Tchaikovsky symphonies to those of any westerner, although his Leningrad orchestra was not the equal of the best western bands in its time.
Is it Russian-ness that we should look for in that case? I'd say not quite. I think of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Stravinsky and Shostakovich as Russian, but Prokofiev as Soviet specifically. The ambience of tank-assembling and tractor production-quotas is strong in quite a lot of his music, but in the symphonies most of all, excluding nos 1 and 7. The right conductor will not be afraid of this, and if Jarvi was so upfront with no 2 then he should be the man for the other four qualifiers, I thought.
So here was the consistent idiomatic approach that I wanted to help me decide for myself whether Prokofiev was or was not a `true' symphonist. Shostakovich gets unquestioning endorsement as such, but the pundits have found out that Prokofiev adapted material from his ballets for symphonies 3 and 4, hence the so-called problem. To me it is no problem. When I hear symphonies by Prokofiev I don't exclaim to myself `How symphonic!' over passage A, and `How suggestive of ballet!' at passage B. My basic ideas of what is `symphonic' were created more than 50 years ago by Haydn and Beethoven, and they don't fit any Russian composer unless maybe Balakirev. The whole concept has loosened and broadened over time, as it was bound to do. Some music used in ballets, such as the famous Montagus-and-Capulets music by Prokofiev, could not be put to symphonic use just as it is, but the categories are far from mutually exclusive in the main, and I reflect that even Beethoven used ballet music in the Eroica.
No 5 is usually thought of as the best of the series, and I think I agree. Jarvi handles it to my entire satisfaction, even though my LP collection includes the legendary account by Koussevitsky as a benchmark. For most of the others, even the criticism often levelled at Jarvi that he encourages a strident orchestral tone is actually a point in his favour in this context. Pulling punches is not the name of this particular game, and if you thought the start of no 2 was uniquely brutal and cacophonous, try the way Jarvi handles the first movement of no 3 and you may find that that runs it close. This kind of thing is not the whole story either by any means, and I think you will find a soul in communion with the composer's in the lyric sections. Indeed, when in the final no 7 Prokofiev's tone was softening (and maybe his head as well) I hope you will experience, as I have just done, a rather touching and idiomatic hint of the schmaltzy idiom of Khachaturian.
One warning should be given, and not many reviews are giving it. The first symphony, the charming lightweight `Classical', is plain awful here - slow, portly and heavy-footed. However it is so easy to find excellent performances of this piece that I do not propose to reduce the overall rating below 4 stars, as I can hardly imagine that it will be what anyone wants this set for. No 7 I have already mentioned, and if you want detailed comment on the others you will have to look for it elsewhere. To me they don't require detailed comment because quite simply they are the real deal, whatever niceties of comparisons can be made with other versions.
And I have a second reason for picking up this complete set. The concerts of the Scottish National Orchestra were where I learned to love good music back in the 1950's. They have come on a long way since then, and a lot of the credit for that presumably belongs with Maestro Jarvi. I am very fond of Prokofiev, although not chiefly of his symphonies. However these accounts have made better sense of them to me than any others have so far done, and they may do the same for you.
on 6 August 2011
This must surely be one of the greatest of recording projects. Taken together, despite some wobbles with performances (as other reviewers have noted, the First Symphony isn't one of the best), this is the finest set of symphonic recordings, with a gorgeous, clear, spacious sound, and superbly crafted performances. This set serves the middle symphonies best perhaps, with the 3rd and 4th (original version) being the finest of all of them. They haven't been bettered. But, I turn to the 6th, surely one of the great symphonic masterpieces of the last century. No one captures the experience of modernity in all its dazzling colour, opportunity, speed and brutality than Prokofiev, and the 6th, which has all those qualities, is brilliantly captured here. I have always loved the 7th, as long as the 'jolly' ending insisted upon by the Soviet authorities isn't bolted on. Sadly, it is here, and I prefer to turn to Rostropovich and the Orchestre National de France on Erato, but it is still a fine performance. This set should be in everyone's collection. The highest recommendation.