Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op. 74 (1937)
Ernst Senff Chor Berlin; members of the Luftwaffenmusikkorps, Erfurt;
Staatskapelle Weimar/Kirill Karabits
rec. live, 23 August 2017, Weimarhalle, Weimar
Reviewed as a 24/48 stereo download from
Pdf booklet includes texts in transliterated Russian, German & English
Recorded a hundred years after the seismic event it celebrates, this piece
finds Kirill Karabits in a very different world to that of Kara Karayev,
whose ballet music is the subject of his superb new
recording. However, he’s no stranger to Prokofiev, as he and the
Bournemouth Symphony have demonstrated with their symphony cycle for Onyx.
Admittedly, my colleagues were rather more positive about that project than
I was, but, for me at least, the Karayev album really marks out Karabits as
a ‘conductor of interest’. Indeed, it was one of my top picks for 2017.
As so often, serendipity has played a part in the genesis of this review.
Waiting to board a train many years ago I bought a copy of the BBC Music magazine [Vol. 5 No. 2], barely glancing at the
cover-mounted CD. Only when I got home I noticed it contained live
performances of the Prokofiev Cantata and Shostakovich’s To October, the latter written for the 10th anniversary of the
Revolution. Both feature the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, augmented
by the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, under Mark Elder. These works were new to
me, but such is the proselytizing passion of the performances that they
quickly became firm favourites.
Then, a few weeks ago, John Quinn mentioned this new Karabits recording. I
thought no more about it until a chance encounter on a web forum, which
indicated a 24/48 download could be had, direct from Audite, for a miserly
€4.99. Yes, it is only 42 minutes of music, but it’s far better value than
the CD, which costs up to three times as much online. Given that high-res
downloads are generally overpriced, this one is a bona fide bargain. What’s
more, it includes a digital booklet with texts and translations: other
labels, please note.
Speaking of bargains, Neeme Järvi’s 1992 recording, with the Philharmonia
Orchestra and Chorus, was reissued in 2009; the 16-bit download – with Pdf
booklet and artwork – is available from
for just £7.99. And that looks even more tempting when you factor in
excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet, The Stone Flower. It’s a fine
album – more on that later – but it’s not in the same league as Järvi’s
sensational (R)SNO pairing of Alexander Nevsky and the Scythian Suite; recorded in spectacular sound, these are my
benchmarks for both works. As an aside, I’m pleased that Chandos updated
their website a while back; not only does it look good, it also works well.
Intended to chart the rise of the Soviet Union from the start of the
Revolution in October 1917 to the consolidation of Stalin’s power in the
1930s, this ten-movement Cantata fell victim to the political
uncertainties of the time. Finally premiered in 1966, the piece demands a
full orchestra, eight-part chorus, military band, bells, sirens, sundry
ordnance and the ‘voice of Lenin’ heard through a megaphone. Karabits takes
that role here – Gennadi Rozhdestvensky does it for Järvi – all of which
adds to the fun. I say that because, at times, it’s not easy to take this
music too seriously. Ditto Shostakovich’s
, which actually sounds quite modest next to Prokofiev’s ear-battering
Goodness, the start of Karabits’s Cantata is hair-raising, the
percussion seat-pinning in its presence and power. The chorus is equally
impressive when it enters in the second movement, Philosophers, and
there’s plenty of thump and thrust when it comes to Marching in Close Ranks and the Interlude that follows. Bombastic? Oh
yes, but it’s oddly compelling, too. The harp figures in Revolution
are nicely done and the singing is suitably animated; ideally, the choral
spread could be wider, the audio image deeper, but that’s a minor quibble.
At least the bells are bright and very audible, and the siren sounds
terrific; as for the conductor, he makes a rousing Vladimir Ilyich, loud
hailer and all.
Interestingly, Karabits often presages the style and sound of the upcoming Nevsky, raspy brass and febrile chorus to the fore. Victory
and The Pledge, marked Andante and Andante pesante respectively, provide some respite before the rather
attractive little Symphony and the hymn-like finale, The Constitution. The vast forces deployed – Järvi and Elder are more
modest in that respect – ensure a pate-cracking performance, but, alas,
it’s not one I’d wish to revisit (although I am keen to hear Karabits
conduct Nevsky and Ivan). Judging by the applause, the Weimar
audience clearly felt they got plenty of bang for their buck.
John Quinn felt Karabits’s Cantata had more impact than Järvi’s,
and, in general, I’d agree. However, there’s a clarity – a seriousness,
even – to the latter’s reading that makes this newcomer seem even more
overblown than it is. I suppose one could argue such public paeans need to
be played for all they’re worth, but the downside here is that Karabits
misses much of the care and craft embedded in the score. Despite fine
playing and singing, Järvi is probably too restrained. Nevertheless,
Ralph Couzens– Ben Connellan assisting – provided a vivid, well-balanced
recording that’s a pleasure to listen to. The filler is a welcome bonus.
Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in February 1996, Elder’s
performance – engineered by Philip Burwell – is blessed with a rare sense
of space. The choral spread is excellent, and, thanks to chorus master
Stephen Jackson, there’s a unanimity and full-throated fervour to the
singing that rivals can’t match. Most important, Elder’s reading is
intensely musical, without sacrificing raw excitement; the Maxim gun
in Revolution, for example, is just marvellous. He also brings
coherence and cumulative power to the piece, and, in so doing does full
justice to the score; indeed, I can’t imagine a more thoughtful and
illuminating account of the Cantata than this. Even better, the CD
can be had second-hand for a few quid. Now that’s a bargain!
Karabits goes way over the top and Järvi doesn’t go far enough; Elder gets
it just right.
~ Marc Rochester