This disc is part of a series by Kultur Video called Great Conductors. While it contains a concert performance of the Scythian Suite led by Valery Gergiev, it can be viewed largely as a documentary about Prokofiev and the Russian conductor’s relationship to the composer’s music. Gergiev declares that Prokofiev is “maybe my favorite composer”. He’s lived up to that declaration, having conducted numerous concert and operatic performances of Prokofiev’s works and having recorded more Prokofiev than any other conductor, with the possible exceptions of Neeme Järvi and Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Filmed in 1997, this Kultur Video DVD contains some interesting archival footage and photographs of the composer.
In addition there is much rehearsal footage of Gergiev leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Scythian Suite. Gergiev, who served as the orchestra’s principal conductor (1995-2008), comments extensively on the music and its history. He is from Ossetia, the region of the Caucasus Mountains where the ancient Scythians lived, and thus feels an even greater affinity for the music’s subject matter. There is also considerable commentary by the composer’s son Oleg (b. 1928), who died in 1998. Oleg was the composer’s second son; the oldest son, Sviatoslav - an interesting fellow whom I interviewed via email in the late-1990s for another web publication - was born in 1924 and is apparently still alive.
Prokofiev derived the music for the four-movement Scythian Suite from his early unfinished ballet Ala and Lolli. Gergiev takes great care in shaping the score, as is evidenced by his painstaking directions to the orchestra during rehearsals, which are conducted in English. His instructions often extend to the more remote parts of the orchestra, including the percussionist and tuba player, to whom he explains at length how to play two seemingly innocuous notes in the third movement! In the end, Gergiev, with fairly broad tempos, gives greater weight and darkness to the music than does Abbado, for example, in his recent recording with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra on Accentus.
Gergiev leads the work’s first movement, Invocation to Veles and Ala, with a powerful and sinister statement of the dissonant main theme, while in the latter half he turns the music exotic in its mystery, but with hints of danger lurking. The second panel, The Evil God and the Dance of the Pagan Monsters, is rhythmic and muscular in its primitive, wild music, Prokofiev invoking a truly grotesque dance scene.
The third movement, Night, is appropriately mysterious and ominous in Gergiev’s hands, with a powerful eruption at the climax that sends the music into a sort of mesmeric tailspin, with swirling strings and howling wind instruments reeling in the darkness. The finale, The Glorious Departure of Lolli and Sunrise, begins with brass somewhat more prominent than is usual in this fleet sequence. The tongue-in-cheek march that follows is colorfully played as is the ensuing humorous section. Sunrise features brass and percussion that almost crush you at the climax with their insistent fortes.
Tracks of the concert performance of the Scythian Suite are scattered across the disc, interleaved with rehearsal takes and commentary. If you want to hear an uninterrupted performance you’ll have to program your player to access the tracks in this order: 4, 6, 8, 10 and 13. There are five tracks because the first movement is split over nos. 4 and 6. The sound is good for its time and the camera work fine. Other worthy recordings of the Scythian Suite include Dorati/Mercury, Mata/Dorian, Järvi/Chandos and the aforementioned Abbado, as well as his 1987 effort with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on DG. Fans of Prokofiev and this work, as well as Gergiev mavens, should find this Kultur Video DVD of considerable interest.