In the summer of 1917, Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick, Jr., the farm machine magnate, met ̀the 26-year-old composer Sergei Prokofiev while on a business trip to Russia. Prokofiev was unknown to McCormick, but the composer recognised the distinguished American’s name at once, because the estate his father had managed owned several impressive International Harvester machines. McCormick expressed an interest in the composer’s new music, and he eventually agreed to pay for the printing of his unpublished 'Scythian Suite'. He also encouraged Prokofiev to come to the United States, and asked him to send some of his scores to Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Frederick Stock. Prokofiev made his debut with the Chicago Symphony the following season, playing his First Piano Concerto and conducting the orchestra in his Scythian Suite in December 1918, both U.S. premieres and returned to Chicago four more times.
These are excellent performances of exceptionally interesting repertoire. Prokofiev himself arranged 19 numbers from his Cinderella ballet for solo piano, so he surely would not have objected in principle to their reworking for two pianos; nor in practice, I suspect, because Pletnev’s arrangements are fabulously idiomatic and the playing here has all the requisite sparkle and drive. Shostakovich’s Op 6 Suite is far too seldom heard. True, it is an apprentice piece and open to criticism – both the first two movements peter out rather unconvincingly and the blend of grandiosity à la Rachmaninov and academic dissection of material à la Taneyev is not always a happy or very original one. But as a learning experience the Suite was a vital springboard for the First Symphony a couple of years later and there is real depth of feeling in the slow movement, as well as intimations elsewhere of the obsessive drive of the mature Shostakovich. What a phenomenally talented 16-year-old he was!
Combined, Prokofiev’s three suites from Romeo include about half of the score. Still, most conductors who want to give us a full CD (or even a full LP) of Romeo pick their own extracts from the complete ballet instead of stringing together the suites. That’s probably at least partly because they don’t share Prokofiev’s preferences when it comes to favorite moments—but it’s also because, as written, the suites are organized for musical rather than narrative coherence, and thus provide little sense of the play’s dramatic trajectory. One way around the second of these issues, of course, is to reorder the suites: that’s, for instance, what Mitropoulos does with selections from the more popular First and Second. Here Andrew Litton pushes that idea to its limit, giving us all 20 movements of the three suites “in the order the music appears in the ballet score.”
This disc contains two works that have been newly recorded. And they are strange works indeed. During the late 1930s Prokofiev wrote three pieces based on works of Pushkin – incidental music for a production of Pushkin's play, Boris Godunov; incidental music for a stage production of his Eugene Onegin; and music for The Queen of Spades. The latter was never finished and never produced, largely because of a change in attitudes from Stalin's government about what art works should focus on. As for the 1950 oratorio 'On Guard for Peace', the less said the better. This is one of those god-awful patriotic oratorios that Stalin's apparatchiks ordered by the yard from the country's composers. This one extols Stalin and the Soviet state, and recalls the sacrifices of WWII. History notes and lyrics in Russian and English can be found in the booklet.
…Why should you buy this recording as opposed to the others on the market though? Well, First there is Dorati- who puts all the dance, gaitey and life into these pieces that are necessary. They sing, they dance, all because of Dorati's expertise with ballet-music. He also gets top-notch playing for the Lt. Kije Suite as well. Secondly, SEAN CONNERY- I laughed out loud when I first realized this icon of dialect was coupled with my favorite conductor on this CD, and later I was even more pleased at how well it worked.
You will surely enjoy both the expert playing, and the narrating of all of these purely fun, purely child-like pieces…
As for sound quality, don't expect too much. It's an old recording. But can anything match the joy of hearing Sean utter, "Birdie and I have caught the wolf"?