As Diaghilev ballets go Chout
must be the
most brazen and brutal; based on a Russian folk tale by Alexander Afanasyev
it tells the story of a buffoon who murders his wife in the belief she
can be returned to life with a magic whip. He persuades seven other
idiots to do the same, and when the resurrections fail he’s forced
to flee disguised as a woman. He then catches the eye of a merchant,
who wants him for a wife. It’s all very bizarre, but Prokofiev’s
raunchy, off-the-wall score does it full justice. The complete ballet
was premiered in Paris in 1921 and the suite was written shortly thereafter.
Anyone interested in the complete score should investigate Gennady Rozhdestvensky
on Melodiya or Michail Jurowski on CPO; as for the suite Neeme Järvi
and the RSNO’s version, recorded as part of their Prokofiev cycle
for Chandos, has tremendous strength and sting. That’s the Järvi
I like, not today’s maestro, many of whose recordings are either
too bland, too fast or a combination of the two. Listening to his Chout
suite in preparation for this review I was struck once more by his and
the Scottish band’s taut and visceral account of this score; surely
it would be hard to equal, let alone surpass?
As if in response to my question along comes the classic Everest version
from Walter Susskind and the London Symphony Orchestra. Older listeners
will remember the US-based label’s small but much-respected catalogue.
Uniquely, some of their later recordings were made on 35mm magnetic
film, although most - including this one - were made on half-inch tape.
The company folded in 1960 and their discs have been in and out of the
catalogue ever since. Countdown Media, based in Germany, have re-mastered
the original tapes and offer the revitalised results as on-demand CD-Rs,
high-res downloads and as 256kbps aacs (Mastered for iTunes).
The Czech-born British conductor Walter Susskind made his name in the
1940s and 1950s. He was one of those approached by Everest, who came
to London in 1958 to make a clutch of classic discs; among these was
Sir Malcolm Arnold conducting his Third Symphony
) and the premiere recording of Vaughan
Williams’ Ninth Symphony
under Sir Adrian Boult. The
focus was firmly on superior sonics, something that hasn't always come
through in the catalogue's various incarnations over the years.
What of Susskind’s Chout
suite? From the giddy glitter
of the first track – The Buffoon and his Wife
clear we’re in the presence of something quite extraordinary.
The sense of theatre – of a narrative that crackles and combusts
like unstable ordnance - is especially welcome; Järvi is apt to
sound a tad episodic at times. The biggest surprise, although it shouldn’t
be, is the bang-up-to-date sound of this 56-year-old recording; dynamics
are wide, balances are entirely natural and the you-are-there feel of
the whole enterprise is most impressive.
As if that weren’t enough the LSO really bring out the lurch and
leer of Prokofiev’s writing, from the brittle charm of The
Dance of the Wives
to the lopsided Expressionist nightmare of the
fugue in which said spouses meet their grisly end. Susskind calibrates
these changing moods to perfection, so that The Buffoon Disguised
as a Young Woman
is imbued with a curious but affecting elegance
that Järvi can’t quite manage. Ditto the manic gyrations
of The Dance of the Buffoons’ Daughters
, which has a
leading edge and inner clarity that never spills over into aggression
or fatigue; percussive transients – spit rather than grit - are
superbly caught as well.
The Entry of the Merchant - Dance of Greeting - Choosing of the
sums up everything that’s so memorable about this
recording; it’s big, bold, colourful, propulsive and very well
balanced. So many telling touches that barely register in the Chandos
recording are easily heard here; this adds immensely to the variety
and richness of what can otherwise be a somewhat relentless score. The
astringent LSO brass and pounding bass - the latter powerful but proportionate
- are a joy to hear. The exemplary breadth and depth of the soundstage
is best demonstrated in the eventful, ear-pricking interjections heard
In the Merchant’s Bedroom
and the rumbustious rat-a-tat
of The Buffoon and the Merchant Quarrel
The original Everest team clearly got it right, but that would count
for nothing if the subsequent digitization and re-mastering weren’t
so sympathetically – so musically
- done. One only has
to sample a handful of re-masters– many of which show signs of
crude intervention - to know that good results are seldom guaranteed.
In the dervish-like Final Dance
the music’s punishing
dynamic swings are managed with aplomb; indeed, one can only wonder
at what this team would have done with the equally demanding and spectacular
. Chandos certainly achieved demonstration-quality
results with Järvi’s recording of the latter, but their Chout
suite is no match for Everest's.
In a nice retro touch these Everest releases are presented with their
original artwork and booklet essays; indeed, the whole package speaks
of high production values. At $17.98 the 24/96 flacs may seem a tad
expensive for a mere 34 minutes of music, but then the CD-Rs - only
available from Amazon US at the time of writing - are priced at just
$9. To put it bluntly, this is an indispensable release at any
The Countdown/Everest team beats all rivals to the summit with this
remarkable reissue; a knock-out performance, too.