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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cinderella (complete), Op 87 [116:49]
Summer Night: Suite from The Duenna, Op 123 [20:13]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. 13 April 1994, Great Hall, State Conservatory, Moscow
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4762233 [2 CDs: 136:44]

This complete recording of Prokofiev’s “other” ballet was a Penguin Guide “Rosette Collection” recording and Brian Wilson quite rightly warmly recommended its re-issue by Presto here as the best available, especially in this bargain double-CD format.

Some reviewers are puzzled by its comparative neglect. I don’t find that so hard to understand, as its music does not hold my interest so completely throughout as the massively popular Romeo and Juliet, which has a broader, more obvious impact in terms both of music and drama. Cinderella is generally more understated and conventional in its harmonies and instrumentation and is not as adventurous, varied or innovative. Its appeal is subtler, being essentially a child-like fairy-tale whose themes conceal darker, more adult concerns but there are still moments of high passion and emotional disturbance which jolt us out of its comfortable context. I am thinking here of how, in the waltz scene, a sense of apprehension is created by the leaping intervals of the melody played by discordant strings, of how the wood-block’s tick-tock above the pounding blare of the lower instruments conveys Cinderella’s mounting terror, and of how scurrying strings and timpani in the Prince’s three galops narrate his desperate search for the Belle of the Ball who has disappeared on the stroke of midnight. The depictions of Cinderella and Juliet have quite a lot in common in the tripping delicacy of their music and the way Prokofiev handles the variations on Cinderella’s ambivalent theme is especially skilful, but I would say that the character of Juliet is more vividly drawn and just occasionally one feels that the composer is here recycling the formulae and musical tropes of Romeo and Juliet to somewhat less novel and striking effect.

Nonetheless, Pletnev unerringly captures the whole range of moods and atmospheres in this fairy tale. The mysterious, brooding, then dreamy Introduction sets the tone for some truly virtuosic playing by the orchestra Pletnev founded. Oher highlights are the faintly sinister Grand Waltz, the amusing allusions to The Love for Three Oranges just before the rapturous pas de deux reminiscent of the equivalent love scene in Romeo and Juliet and the aforementioned frenetic waltz, “Cinderella’s Departure for the Ball”. However, Acts Two and Three are otherwise mostly just a succession of dance numbers and set pieces – rather like many of Rimsky Korsakov’s operas! – punctuated by the episodes which advance the story, such as when the Prince and Cinderella dance together, fall in love, and Cinderella flees, and of course the dénouement. That constitutes another reason why, considered simply as music, this ballet is less gripping than Romeo and Juliet, which is much more dramatic per se. Cinderella is undoubtedly more entertaining and effective heard in its proper context as the musical correlative to the visual element of dance. The two concluding numbers, the Slow Waltz and the Amoroso apotheosis are, however, exquisitely conducted and lovingly played; the best of the music here is in the waltz numbers.

The bonus prelude is the suite Summer Night adapted from Prokofiev’s opera Betrothal in a Monastery (after a Russian translation of Sheridan’s libretto for The Duenna, by the “English Mozart” Thomas Linley and his father, also Thomas). It bears all the familiar Prokofievian hallmarks: a leaping melody for brass, spiky harmonies, jaunty marches, passages of flowing, rhapsodic lyricism and sarcastic humour. Dreams is the most atmospheric and haunting movement of the five.

The notes are excellent with a very useful synopsis allowing the listener to follow the music matching it to the action of the ballet – except the author perpetrates that hoariest of solecisms when he writes of Midnight that “the music rises to a crescendo” when he means, of course, that it rises (i.e. crescendos) to a climax.

There are other fine recordings of the suites from Cinderella and a single disc of highlights from Rozhdestvensky - but that is obviously only excerpts and in raw sound. If you want the complete ballet the only other option of comparable quality is Ashkenazy with the Cleveland Orchestra on Decca but this digital version from Pletnev is clearly the prime recommendation.

Ralph Moore

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