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SERGEI PROKOFIEV - THE 7 SYMPHONIES - DIMITRI KITAYENKO (Conductor) - COLOGNE GÜRZENICH ORCHESTRA - 845221071909 - Capriccio/Phoenix Edition 5-Disc Set

I have two good reasons to be glad for the arrival of this newly recorded set of all the Prokofiev symphonies, released in September of 2008. The first thing to be thankful about, is that it forced me to get re-acquainted with these formidable 20th century symphonic masterpieces, that for some reason I had neglected to listen to for quite a while. The other good reason is that this set of recordings has raised the bar for the interpretation of these thorny works, and for sonic impact.

Sergei Prokofiev, who lived from 1891 to 1953 (actually died on the same day as Stalin), could well be compared with Shostakovich, although oddly enough, for a Russian composer who lived in the U.S.A. and France for close to 20 years before returning to his native country, to me sounds much more Soviet (if you can define music that way) than Shostakovich. And whilst Shostakovich was an extrovert, always exposing his emotions in music for all to see, Prokofiev was an introvert, concerned more with form and structure, and concealing his emotions and political ideals deep within the texture of the music. So when you uncover one of those secrets while listening, it creates quite an impact.

While he was young and living abroad, he was often considered a leader of the avant-garde and the black sheep of Russian composers, but after his return, wrote music less frowned upon like Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf, and Symphony No. 5 for example. His approach to music was always direct and structured, although I've always admired his unique and peculiar harmonic shifts that create that unmistakable Prokofiev sound.

All his symphonies are strong musical statements and great examples of 20th century symphonic development, but for comparison reasons I will highlight No. 5 in this review because it is the better known of his symphonies, and for me, a potent example of creative writing so rarely seen. For a symphony that was composed in 1944, one of the darkest moments in Russian history, it is a work full of optimism. Prokofiev himself said that it was a hymn to the people and the human spirit. It is written on a grand scale of epic proportions.

Dimitri Kitayenko delivers an interpretation of all the symphonies with a perfect understanding of the rationale behind them and the cultural turmoil that surrounded them. While listening to this set, I listened to other recent recordings of the 5th from Gergiev on Philips, Jurowski on Pentatone and Järvi on Telarc, and not one of them has the same scope or conjures up the same emotions as Kitayenko. He allows the music to speak freely, at its own pace, whilst Gergiev bullies it along and Järvi but skims the surface. Kitayenko (sometimes spelled Kitajenko) and this world class orchestra reach deep into the score of each symphony and dig out their concealed treasures. A great example of just that, are those loud and terrifying poundings on the door, just as the first movement of the 5th reaches the 8 minute mark. An indication that Prokofiev knew he was being watched by the regime, like so many other artists around him at that time.

Phoenix Edition have produced yet another first rate recording that is full-bodied and detailed, with a wide dynamic range. Actually, let me tell you that there is some pretty serious sonic muscle during the last couple of minutes of the first movement of the 5th symphony. Enjoy!

Prokofiev provides a perfect example of how to remain human in an environment which makes this almost impossible. {Alfred Schnittke}

Jean-Yves Duperron