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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Chout (The Buffoon) Ballet Suite, Op. 21a (1922-1923)
London Symphony Orchestra/Walter Susskind
rec. August 1958, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 flac download from HDtracks
Pdf booklet included

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 Four Scottish Dances (review) 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 - it’s 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 Bride 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 Alexander Nevsky. 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 price.
The Countdown/Everest team beats all rivals to the summit with this remarkable reissue; a knock-out performance, too.
Dan Morgan