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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Egyptian Nights - incidental music (first complete recording) (1934) [55:00]
Chulpan Chamatova; Jacob Küf (speakers)
Victor Sawaley (tenor)
Arutjun Kotchinian (bass)
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester/Michail Jurowski
rec. Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Chrstus-Kirche Mar 2003, Jan-Feb 2004. DDD
CAPRICCIO 67 059 [55:00]

It is as if Michail Jurowski, CPO and Capriccio were working on a coordinated basis to traverse Prokofiev's incidental music. CPO are covering the ballets while Capriccio are handling the theatrical and cinema music. Capriccio have already issued CDs of the complete music for Alexander Nevsky (neither with Jurowski as it happens) but they have also recorded with that conductor Prokofiev's music for Hamlet and for Boris Godunov (Capriccio CD 67 058). Now here comes the complete music for Egyptian Nights (a Pushkin work that also inspired music by Arensky). The ballet is a rare visitor to the studio with only a couple of suites on offer (Polyansky on Chandos and Rozhdestvensky on Olympia if you could track it down).

Egyptian Nights was a ballet around a theatrical event which was a hybrid of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra as well as Pushkin's unfinished tale of the same name. I last hear this movement back in 1999 in a BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Manchester studio concert conducted by that arch-Russophile Edward Downes.

There are thirteen episodes here - ranging from the 43 second Drinking Song for bass voice and chorus (tr. 6) to the 7 minute 46 second Melodrama (tr. 5).

The music is strong on tension and atmosphere with spare rather than sumptuous textures. Everything is cleanly laid out and one of the hallmarks is the flute-led chatter of birdsong and the tensely tremulous bed of strings creating anticipation. The clarinet song at 5.09 sings out over a basso ostinato. The song is taken up by the violins in pre-echo of the treatment of a similar theme in Romeo and Juliet. Coarsely blown fanfares suggest the barbaric Egyptian court. There is a beautiful movement with the harp quietly pattering in an extraordinary evocation of ancient evenings - The Young Slaves Play. The mighty and merciless Romans are suggested by music of colossal weight and inhumanity - Prokofiev's equivalent of shock and awe. We hear more of the same in the thunder and insistent attack of the warlike Rome (trs. 8 and 11). There is plenty of work for tam-tam, percussion, brass - especially trombones and tuba. Victor Sawaley is the fearful voice of the eunuchs in tr. 9.

I am partial to melodrama and hearing Chulpan Chamatova speaking in Russian with such hooded threat and seductive promise over Prokofiev's magical score makes this a disc I will return to. Chulpan is also the orator on tracks 5 and 12 but Jacob Küf, also speaking in resonant Russian as Anthony on tr. 7, is also outstanding. I love the Chandos version of Eugene Onegin but the words are spoken there in English. Now if only that production could have been in the original Russian; better yet, how about a reissued of the extraordinary 1976 Melodiya set of 2 LPs where the music is conducted by Kemal Abdullayev (USSR Central TV and Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the actors are Konsovskii, Kibkalo and Milanovich.

The music works extremely well and Jurowski and his Berlin forces are sympathetic and idiomatic. Prokofiev's music works well except that Antony's Death seems rather matter of fact - careless almost. All is redeemed by the imploring, pained and yet still amorously inveigling voice of Cleopatra; Chamatova enters fully into the spirit of this production.

Intriguingly the music was conducted at the theatre by Nikolai Medtner's brother Alexander Karlovich Medtner (1877-1956).

As befits such a significant set the notes, in German and English, are thorough, highly detailed and scholarly.

All the words are given in English, German and French but irritatingly not in transliterated Russian; after all, the words are acted out in Russian.

This is a unique recording and is an essential purchase for any Prokofiev collector.

Rob Barnett

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