MUSIC / Double Play: Love and death: New records reviewed by Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson

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The Independent Culture
Prokofiev - War and Peace: Soloists, Kirov Opera and Orchestra, St Petersburg / Gergiev (Philips 434 097-2: three CDs)

AS a record of what must have been a remarkable staged performance this is well worth hearing. As a musical experience, it's hard to place against the Rostropovich/Erato recording. Rostropovich's approach is monumental - sometimes magnificently expansive, sometimes just slow. The new Gergiev is much more urgent - there's a real theatrical pace here, and he's able to squeeze the opera into three discs.

Rostropovich shapes Prokofiev's immense orchestral lines more lovingly, and consistently seems to relish the details in this astonishingly fertile score. Gergiev has other advantages: Yelena Prokina is a more believable Natasha, and her big moments can be electrifying. Gegam Gregorian's Pierre has strength and intensity, and Nikolai Okhotnikov makes a reasonable job of Kutuzov's big number.

In the excitement of the event one probably wouldn't fret too much over near-inaudible details like the chorus's 'piti, piti, piti' - the sound of the blood singing in the dying Prince Andrei's ears. And there wouldn't be the hard sound to contend with. As a recording, this often excites, but it is Rostropovich who finds the pathos. SJ

IT'S a cruel irony, but the dry, constricting sound of the Kirov's Mariinsky Theatre has a belittling effect on this great score. Some of Prokofiev's most pungent and aromatic scoring sounds distressingly undernourished; orchestrally, one is left with a somewhat muted impression of Valery Gergiev's conducting.

Voices tend to come and go in the heat of this all-live War and Peace (you certainly smell both greasepaint and gunpowder on the battlefield and in occupied Moscow), but what voices - a comprehensive who's who of Russia's rising stars, none more remarkable than Yelena Prokina whose fresh, vibrant, vulnerable Natasha is a heartbreaker in every one of her scenes.

Prokofiev, of course, has a little something to do with it: is anything in opera more movingly understated than Natasha's brief reunion with Andrei with its half-remembered strains of their first waltz together? You get the whole work here, right down to the rarely heard Overture - which means that the great choral 'Epigraph' has been shifted, to devastating effect, from its position at the head of the score to the fulcrum of the piece where war finally engulfs Mother Russia. The only competition comes from the better-sounding Rostropovich set, ruled out for me by Galina Vishnevskaya's matronly Natasha. ES

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex: Soloists, London Philharmonic and Choir / Welser-Most (EMI CDC 754445-2)

GETTING the balance right in Stravinsky's 'opera-oratorio' is extraordinarily difficult. I'm not sure even Stravinsky completely succeeded on record - at least not in his later stereo version. Still, there is a lot about Franz Welser-Most's conducting that impresses. His sudden lurch forward in the opening chorus is the only example of a tempo that feels ill-chosen, and there's plenty of energy, if not quite the brutal and compelling momentum of the Stravinsky.

Almost nothing is forced and yet there's plenty of power. And some of the solo singing might made have made Stravinsky more than a touch envious, especially John Tomlinson's sonorous Creon, Alastair Miles's Tiresias and Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Oedipus. I can't imagine him getting very excited about Lambert Wilson's elegant, bland Speaker. A strong showing, all the same, and without doubt Welser-Most's most convincing recorded effort to date. SJ

THE SOUND is worryingly overblown. The Narrator (Lambert Wilson about as interesting as a speak-your-weight machine) echoes forth; the combined choral and orchestral sound is imposing but too diffuse. I want to see the grain of this music, I want a sharper, better delineated view of the chorus: whatever happened to the tenors in the Gloria?

One feels distanced from the heat and theatricality of Welser-Most's vital, well- sculpted reading. The solo voices are outstanding. Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Oedipus gauges beautifully the operatic inflection of the part; Mariana Lipovsek's Jocasta exploits both her words and the colours of her chest voice. But I should like to have relocated the whole event. ES

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