LABELS: Chandos Historical
WORKS: Semyon Kotko
PERFORMER: Soloists; USSR RSO & Choir/Mikhail Zhukov
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10053(3) ADD Reissue (1960)
At first glance this looked like a foolhardy decision on Chandos’s part; having filled a gap in the market with a vivid, if much cut-about Melodiya recording of Prokofiev’s second Soviet opera, The Story of a Real Man, the company now gives us another of his first, Semyon Kotko, when Gergiev’s Philips version seems to have said all that’s worth saying on the subject. I only knew this 1960 specimen, marshalled by Mikhail Zhukov who conducted the 1940 premiere, through a poor LP pressing, and found it eminently listenable-to for the first time on CD. True, the orchestra retreats into another room for the louder swathes of the opera, including the crucial fire-finale of Act III – one of Prokofiev’s most vivid operatic ensembles – and the voices are very close-miked. Zhukov’s pacing, while not entirely limp, verges on the turgid compared to Gergiev’s, and the overall length poses problems of act-distribution across three CDs (the Philips recording splits the five acts neatly between two discs).
However, one essential quality remains for Prokofiev’s vivid mixture of song and narrative as he tells an individual story about the post-war chaos in the Ukraine: the ensemble spirit, reminding us that Gergiev’s Mariinsky has not always had the monopoly on casting from strength right across the board. Only N Gres’s protagonist (Chandos has not been able to establish the cast’s first names) stands out of line, with the necessary heroic-tenor strengths but virtually no dramatic light and shade (when he finally sings a phrase piano in Act IV, one nearly faints with surprise). The other singers convey the nuances of the text – the likeable mixture of speech-melody and arioso – very compellingly. If this is by no means an essential issue, it does at least make a good case for Prokofiev’s sheer individuality for at least three-quarters of his striking, if inevitably flawed, Soviet project. David Nice