Prokofiev: Semyon Kotko

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COMPOSERS: Prokofiev
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).

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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