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 McCormick expressed an interest in the composer’s new music, and he eventually agreed to pay for the printing of his unpublished 'Scythian Suite'.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!
Rather than play any single complete suite (of the three) that Prokofiev extracted from the complete ballet, Myung-Whun Chung makes his own selection of numbers, roughly following the plot line and including music representative of all the major characters. Although some other collections offer more music, this hour of Romeo and Juliet makes a satisfying presentation on its own. What makes the performance special is the spectacular playing of the Dutch orchestra. Frankly, it's never been done better. From the whiplash virtuosity of the violins to the bite of the trombones and the firm thud of the bass drum, this is the sound the composer must have dreamed of.
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.”
Scherchen fans of a certain age will fondly recall the Prokofiev in its original incarnation as Westminster LP WL 5091, its murky brown cover depicting a fierce, fleeing horseman pursued by turquoise-colored flying beasties. That cover illustration, this time with the pursuers in red and the background a more legible mustard, will bring on fits of nostalgia, not only for the cover art but for idiomatic performances of wondrous barbarism. The Scythian Suite, salvaged from a ballet score rejected by Diaghilev, is an early work covered with fingerprints of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Indeed, sections such as the opening of the “Night” episode sound like outtakes from that scandalous model. Imitative or not, the young composer produced a score whose relentless drive and brilliant orchestration should be heard more often. Scherchen launches into the opening orchestral splash like a wild man, gives the horn whoops of the final movement the piquant flavor they need, and is deliciously atmospheric in the aforementioned “Night”..