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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Semyon Kotko, Op.81 (1940)
Nikolai Gres (tenor) - Semyon Kotko; Tamara Yanko (mezzo) - Mother; Lyudmila Gelovani (soprano) - Sofia; Tamara Antipova (mezzo) - Frosya; Nicolai Pantchekin (bass) - Tkachenko; Gennady Troitsky (bass) - Remeniuk; Mikhail Kiselev (baritone) - Tsaryov; Tatiana Tugarinova (soprano) - Lyubka; Antonina Kleschyova (mezzo) - Khivrya; Daniil Demyanov (bass) - Ivasenko; Nikola Timtchenko (baritone) - Mikola; Mechislav Shchavinski (tenor) - Workman; Leonid Neverov (tenor) - Interpreter; Vladimir Zukharov (baritone) - Van Wierhof; Boris Dubrin (baritone) - Bandora player; Miroslav Markov (tenor) - Young man; Nikolai Brilling (bass) - Sergeant; Alexander Tikhonov and Ivan Kartavenko (tenor and bass) - Villagers; Antonia Savosina, Tamara Medvedeva and Nina Kulagina (sopranos and contralto) - Village women; Alexei Stepanov and Arnold Lokshin (basses) - Old men; Arnold Lokshin and Georgy Ostrovsky (basses) - Haidamaks
All-Union Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Mikhail Zhukov
rec. Moscow, 1960
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 02120 [3 CDs: 77.10 + 53.27 + 52.08]

There have only ever been two recordings of Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko in the catalogues. This, the first, was made in mono in 1960 by Russian radio forces. The later one, in stereo, was made by Valery Gergiev's Kirov forces during a theatrical run (review) of the opera during the late 1990s and issued in 2000 (review). Doubtless in consideration of the exigencies of stage presentation, Gergiev's recording was heavily cut with some fifty minutes of music omitted. Now, Semyon Kotko may not be the greatest of Prokofiev's operas - The love for three oranges would contest that title with War and Peace - but no music by the mature Prokofiev can ever be truly unworthy of consideration. Since it is only the 1960 version, under consideration here, that gives us the score at full length this must to a considerable degree be considered hors concours.
 
The situation is complicated by the fact that this recording exists in two different transfers. In 2003 Chandos issued a still-available version in re-mastered form as part of their 'historical' series, and in that format the recording was considered by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf). I will therefore refrain from repeating here the lengthy summary of the plot that he provided in his review, referring readers to his comprehensive consideration of the matter of Prokofiev's politically inspired revisions of the text. The Chandos reissue presumably derived from commercial LP or tape issues of the original recording; this Melodiya version is re-mastered from the original tapes - Rob Barnett commented favourably on the Chandos sound. The main difference between these two reissues centres on the manner of their presentation. Whereas Chandos provided full texts and translations of the libretto - and in view of the complicated ramifications of the plot these are absolutely essential - here Melodiya restricts the listener to a small booklet in Russian Cyrillic and English, containing considerable detail on the history of the composition but very little about the opera itself. The synopsis, basic in the extreme, is not even cued to indicate what happens on each track. Under the circumstances, and given that the Chandos recording remains available, those who want to hear Prokofiev's opera can only be recommended to that release rather than this cheese-paring Melodiya reissue.
 
With the exception of such obviously popular works as Peter and the wolf and Romeo and Juliet, there has been a tendency over the years for commentators to be rather condescending about the works of Prokofiev's Soviet career. During the period of the Stalinist purges, both Prokofiev and Shostakovich were consistently attacked by Party apparatchiks for their failure to conform to the model of 'socialist realism'. Unlike Shostakovich, Prokofiev was denied the opportunity in later life to develop beyond these imposed constraints. Having been unfortunate enough to die on the very same day as Stalin, he was never able to supervise the revision and revival of works that had been suppressed, or to write new ones in the relatively freer atmosphere of Khushchev and his successors. For that matter, neither did he enjoy the more dubious benefits of posthumous controversy following the publication of his 'memoirs'. One of his final requests was a heartfelt plea for Rostropovich to promote his opera War and Peace; and in the event performances even of that opera in anything like a complete form had to wait for some twenty years after his death . and still longer for Rostropovich's recording (Warner). Works like Semyon Kotko, which had been the subject of political revisionism even before its composition had been completed, never really stood a chance.
 
In one way this Melodiya reissue does improve on the Chandos version: we are given the full names of all the participants. In the Soviet era recordings and performances generally gave just the initial and surname of singers and conductors, which often left listeners in some doubt as to who exactly these performers might be. Chandos, working from the original LP issue, were unable to supply the missing information; Melodiya, presumably with access to the relevant contracts and paperwork, have now furnished the full forenames of all those concerned - as given in the heading to this review - with the odd exception of the conductor, who was given his full name by Chandos and had also conducted the first performance twenty years earlier. The names of the chorus and orchestra are also now supplied differently from those in the Chandos release, although they are clearly the same bodies of performers. The booklet fails at any point to mention that the recording is in mono only, although that is clearly implied by the performance date; Chandos were more honest about this, and Rob Barnett commended their "consumer-orientated frankness".
 
However it is pleasant now to be in a position to give full credit to the cast. They are placed very forwardly in the recording balance, but there are not too many of those dreadful Slavonic wobbles in evidence and a great deal of the singing is decidedly enjoyable. Rob Barnett commented favourably on the singing of Nikolai Gres in the title role, but one also notes with pleasure the contributions of Tamara Yanko, Lyudmila Gelovani and Tamara Antipova in the three leading female roles. All of them produce good solid steady tone, something than can by no means be taken for granted in Soviet recordings of this period. Again it is not possible to be complimentary to several of the other singers - there are, as one would expect, some excellent basses - because one has no real idea about who is actually singing at any given point. Even the track-listings only give the names of the first singer on each track.
 
Those who are content with hearing only a cut version of this mature Prokofiev score will be quite satisfied with the Gergiev release, available both as a separate item and as part of a bumper box of Kirov recordings (the latter minus libretto). It has to be admitted that there is a fair amount of what could unkindly be described as note-spinning in the complete opera. Those who are reluctant to forego any music by this composer will need the 1960 recording, and the mono sound remains quite acceptable even by modern standards. It should also be noted that the singing on the 1960 set is generally rather stronger and more consistent than in the live Kirov recording. Even so listeners are better served by the presentation on the Chandos version than on this Melodiya one, particularly if they want to understand what is going on at any given point in the score. The company really should reconsider what they need to supply for potential purchasers, either in the booklet or on line, in what is after all still pretty obscure repertory.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 






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