I'll start with stating that I normally only review discs of which I am very familiar with either the music being performed, the performers, or, ideally, both. In this case, I was not familiar with conductor James Gaffigan, and don't have extensive experience with the 3rd Symphony. However, I was intrigued with these Prokofiev discs for three reasons: 1) they are presented in the SACD format; 2) I have been very impressed with the sound on other Challenge Classics releases; and 3) I have not been terribly impressed thus far with Andrew Litton's continuing SACD series for BIS. As good as Litton is, I find his Prokofiev a little too laid back, mellow, and beautiful in the wrong way.
While I am very familiar with most of Prokofiev's symphonies, this original version of the 4th is new to me. And beginning with it, I found it to be slightly smaller-scaled and more balletic than the more familiar 1947 revised version (which Litton has just recorded for BIS). And, indeed, the liner notes reveal this symphony has thematic origins drawn from Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son. It often reminds one very much of ballet music. The 3rd Symphony also has origins from a stage work, that of Prokofiev's lesser-known opera: L'Enge de feu (Fiery Angel). It can be a rather angry-sounding work in other hands, but here it is both imminently musical and powerful - sheer genius. I have never before enjoyed the 3rd Symphony as much as I did listening to this performance. There is little to say about the more familiar 6th and 7th Symphonies - and the competition is plentiful.
However, there is something special going on with these recordings. Without going into extensive details about the compositions themselves, I can confidently tell you that the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra is sensational - at least with this conductor on the podium. James Gaffigan seems to have a thorough understanding and love for Prokofiev and he is the most persuasive advocate for these works. These performances cry out with the utmost passion, ardor, and orchestral color. There is also a Russian fervor here which is missing from many symphony cycles (including Litton's). And yet there is a supreme refinement to the orchestral playing which belies description. It is not the homogeneous, anonymous, overly smooth sound so many of today's conductors go for. There is real character and personality here. The conductor has a real vision of this music and this orchestra plays as if they still care about their music-making, and not simply on autopilot as is so often the case. Finally, there is a clarity to the textures which allows one to hear so much inner detail. It really is quite a revelation.
Do not for a moment think that this supreme refinement and control are an indication of a lack of power, or powerful involvement. These characteristics are everywhere to be heard. And Challenge Classics' recording quality certainly has much to do with all of the excellence on display. I want to make clear that these are absolutely, without doubt, among the very best-sounding SACDs I have yet heard. (Incidentally, I listen in 2-channel, stereo SACD on a very high quality system - not surround sound). Not only are the qualities praised above portrayed with the utmost realism (namely warm, colorful and detailed orchestral textures), but the powerful sound of this orchestra, as it fills the rich acoustic with absolute clarity and dynamic ease, is awesome. As is the bass drum contribution. Anyone who thinks of Reference Recordings when mentioning the bass drum should listen to this disc to hear what a recording of the bass drum should sound like when done correctly. It is magnificent. Percussion of all varieties add a jaw-dropping color and life to the orchestral scoring, as do the gorgeously blended brass and wood choirs. And the strings sing with a soaring intensity not often heard. I cannot remember hearing an orchestra with such variety of color and gorgeously, rich saturation (and powerful) body of tone.
I unhesitatingly recommend these discs, not just for the sonics (which really will knock your socks off), but for the most superlative orchestral playing you'll hear anywhere and for the incredibly immersive Prokofiev performances. It is like hearing these works for the first time - and being completely bowled over by them. James Gaffigan and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic are magnificent. This easily surpasses Litton's ongoing series (for BIS) in all areas - interpretation, recorded sound and the quality of the orchestral playing. I really have run out of superlatives to describe it. These are among the very best orchestral recordings I have ever heard. I simply cannot wait for their recording of the 5th!