Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Suite from Lieutenant Kij Op.60 (1934) [19:59]
Suite from The Love for Three Oranges Op.33a (1924) [15:29]
The Ugly Duckling Op.18 (1915, orchestral version 1932) [12:28]
Andrei Laptev (baritone); Jacqueline Porter (soprano)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. The Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, 2009
The review is of the SACD layer.

This hybrid SACD is short measure at a little over 48 minutes and only stereo is provided - no multi-channel. The attractive booklet has good notes and useful parallel translations of the sung texts in Japanese and English.

Unusually, the best thing on this disc is the filler, Prokofiev's song The Ugly Duckling. This is a tightly illustrated little scenario which the composer orchestrated seventeen years after its composition. Given the way his hugely famous Peter and the Wolf was written, with children clearly in mind, it is a surprise how seriously Prokofiev treats Hans Christian Andersen's equally famous tale. Apart from some discreet bassoon burblings he resists the temptation to play the clown la Danny Kaye and tells the tale of the cygnet believing itself to be a duckling as a parable of his own life at that time in his career. Asafiev described it as 'a fairy tale about S. Prokofiev as told by himself' and Maxim Gorky drew a very similar parallel. Though only twelve minutes long The Ugly Duckling is a lovely piece and packs quite a punch, remarkable for a fairly early score. Jacqueline Porter relishes the Russian text - her study of linguistics was obviously useful to her - and gives a lot of character to the events whilst Ashkenazy's Sydney orchestra give excellent support.

What of the remaining 31 or so minutes? Perhaps the comparative unfamiliarity of The Ugly Duckling works to the benefit of orchestra and conductor in that comparisons are not easily drawn. This is the not the case with either of the two well-known orchestral suites which occupy the bulk of this disc. Here the competition is fierce and these performers pale against the competition. Ashkenazy is rather sluggish in Lieutenant Kij and sounds rather bored by it all. The playing is good but careful. Baritone Andrei Laptev is agile but there is a suspicion of pitch waver and he tends to snatch at his phrases as if he is over-extended. It is good to hear the vocal versions of the Romance and Troika but it needed to have been better done to win this reviewer over. The distant trumpet is nicely far off but not as effective as in, for example, the recording by Abbado and the Chicago orchestra whose 1978 DG issue was to hand. Abbado characterises this music beautifully and is telling a story right from the start. Since his recording is at least as good and in some ways better despite its 32 years the current issue loses out. The suite from The Love of Three Oranges is similarly challenged by another even older performance, that of Silvestri and the Vienna Phiharmonic made for EMI in 1961. The Exton disc sounds quite raucous against the almost 50 year old competitor and Silvestri invests so much more characterisation into the Scne Infernale and delicacy into the Scherzo. The Prince and the Princess under Silvestri makes Ashkenazy sound utterly prosaic.

Given the quality of Ashkenazy's past recordings of Russian repertoire, one thinks of the Rachmaninov symphonies with the Concertgebouw and more recently the Philharmonia, I have to wonder what happened here. The Sydney Symphony and its principal conductor can surely do better than this. I recollect some good Schoenberg some time ago for Edo de Waart so I guess it was just an off day.

Dave Billinge

Low key performances not rescued by a very well sung Ugly Duckling. The second class SACD recording cannot withstand some ancient competition.