This is one of the most important 'historic' Prokofiev recordings ever made. Antal Dorati and the LSO
play the two suites with perfection and passion, it's as if the ghost of Prokofiev had been present at the recording sessions, whispering interpretative tips into the ears of the musicians and the maestro alike. I have I believe, more Prokofiev discs in my collection than that of any other composer (although Vaughan Williams and (JS) Bach come close I think) and I believe that, to this day, the "Scythian Suite" Op. 20 and "The Love for Three Oranges" Op. 33a have *never* been performed as well as they are on this recording from 1957 (as always with Mercury's "Living Presence" series, here done with three Telefunken microphones-one '201' and two 'M56', the sound is rather extraordinary; indeed that the music was made in 1957 becomes but a footnote). There are plenty of great versions
yet here the forces achieve something imo, that is hard to put into words. The 5th Symphony is done
very well too, although it is not my favorite, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra is up to the challenge yet it feels imo slightly uninspired in (just a few) places. I suppose I just know the symphony so very well. All the same I'd give this performance of the 5th high marks, and it's more than worth having and playing.
After winning the "Rubinstein Prize" (which was a fine new piano) in a piano competition in 1914 where he performed a fugue from Bach's towering "The Art of Fugue" and his own Piano Concerto No.1, Prokofiev's mother Maria Grigoryevna Zhitkova rewarded the young Sergei with a trip to London to attend performances of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. In the English capital, Prokofiev heard for the first time Stravinsky's "Firebird" and "Petrouchka" and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe", as well as many other contemporary works. He was introduced to Diaghilev who, after hearing him play his Second Piano Concerto, invited Prokofiev to write a ballet score based on a "Russian fairy tale or prehistoric themes". Prokofiev was 'assigned' a librettist, the poet Sergei Gorodetsky, and the two men concocted the story for a ballet entitled "Ala and Lolli". Completing the piano version in the fall of 1914, the composer brought it to Diaghilev the following year. The impresario pronounced the work "dull" and asked instead for a new ballet. Obligingly Prokofiev wrote "The Buffoon" but did not abandon the rejected score. He orchestrated Ala and Lolli and arranged it in the form of an orchestral suite entitled "Scythian Suite". It's premiere on Nov. 29, 1916, in St. Petersburg established Prokofiev as an internationally known composer.
In subject matter and treatment, the Scythian Suite bears a close relationship to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" of 1913. Both scores were originally commissioned by Diaghilev, dealt with similar themes of pagan Russia, and were characterized by ostinato figurations and a barbaric rhythmic momentum. Yet each is a distinctly personal expression. Broadly speaking, the early compositions of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, while ushering in a new era, shared in the great national musical legacy bequeathed by Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Works like "A Night on Bald Mountain", the opera "Le Coq D'Or", with its fantastic color and imagery, and the many excursions into Slavic antiquity and folklore by these and other members of the 'Might Five'-exerted a basic influence on the evolution of these 20th century Russians. In the case of Stravinsky, the influence was quite profound. It was not until Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring that he unequivocally left behind the shimmering, voluptuous, fairy-tale atmosphere of Rimsky-Korsakov's style for a new and pungent realism. Prokofiev, on the other hand, developed his own unique musical language almost from the start. Present already in his early piano piece "Diabolical Suggestion" (1908) are the relentless motor-rhythms, biting dissonances, and sparkling wit of his maturity.
The "Scythian Suite" and the suite from "The Love for Three Oranges" display contrasting facets of Prokofiev's musical personality. Raw in color and overwhelming in its savage orchestral climaxes, the former work reflects the composer's absorption in a new expressive idiom within a framework of subject matter that predates that which inspired the earlier Russian composers. In The Love for Three Oranges, he gave free rein to his love of satire and grotesque characterization (speaking of satire, Woody Allen used quite effectively music from both the Scythian Suite and "..Oranges" in his early film "Love and Death", a comical take on 19th-century Russian philosophical novels, war, and the Soviet-era epic films made from them). The Scythians were nomadic tribes who lived on the steppes between the Carpathian Mountains and the Don River. The first accounts of Scythians date back to the Ninth century B.C. In the Seventh B.C., they began trading with the Greeks and served as mercenaries in the latter's armies. By 100 B.C., the Scythians had vanished as a race. Only shadowy descriptions exist of ancient Scythia. According to Herodotus, the Scyths were a barbaric people who collected scalps of their fallen enemies, practiced suttee(a rather grotesque funeral ritual), and worshipped nature-deities. Other sources however show that they were a highly artistic race in addition.
The Scythian Suite is in four movements and is scored for a gigantic orchestra consisting of 8 horns, 5 trumpets, triple woodwinds, piano, and a complete family of percussion instruments including triangle, tam-tam, snare drum, bass drum, bells, xylophone, celesta, and timpani, as well as the usual strings.
Here is the outline that accompanies Prokofiev's score:
1."Invocation to Veles and Ala" (Allegro Feroce) The music describes an invocation to the sun, worshipped by the Scythians as their highest deity and named by them Veles. The invocation is followed by the sacrifice to the beloved idol, Ala, daughter of Veles.
2."The Evil God and Dance of the Pagan Monsters" (Allegro sostenuto) The evil god summons the seven pagan monsters from their subterranean realm and, surrounded by them, dances a delirious dance.
3."Night" (Andantino) The evil god comes to Ala in the darkness. Great harm befalls her. The moon rays fall on Ala and the moon-maidens descend to bring her consolation.
4."Lolli's Pursuit of the Evil God, and Sunrise" (Tempestuoso) Lolli, a Scythian hero, goes forth to save Ala. He fights the evil god. In the uneven battle with the latter, Lolli would have perished, but the sun god rises with the passing of the night and smites the evil deity. With the description of the sunrise, the Suite comes to an end.
In the spring of 1918, Prokofiev left his revolution-torn homeland for a trip to the United States. In New York, he played in recital and introduced his First Piano Concerto at a symphony concert. Performances of the same concerto and the Scythian suite marked his Chicago debut with Frederick Stock conducting. At this time, he was approached by Cleofonte Campanini, the principal conductor of the Chicago Opera Company, with a commission for an opera. Prokofiev had with him the piano score of "The Gambler" (there's a great disc on Chandos that has four orchestral sections from it, along with a few other orchestral rarities, Jarvi conducting, and I like the full opera that is on a Phillips disc) but is was only when he mentioned the fact that he was working on plans for an opera based on n Italian theme that Campanini displayed any real interest. The contract was signed and, and, following a six-week period of illness, Prokofiev plunged into work.
The piano score for "The Love for Three Oranges" was completed in 1919 and the orchestral score in time for the fall season. But Campanini died shortly before the opera was scheduled to go into rehearsal, and the premiere was put off until December 30, 1921. The reception was cool, and it was only in 1949, when the New York City Opera incorporated it into its repertoire, using the acclaimed new English translation by Victor Seroff, that The Love for Three Oranges came into its own. In 1924 however, Prokofiev arranged a suite from the opera; in this form it became a popular addition to the symphonic repertoire. The book of The Love for Three Oranges is based on a fairy tale by the 18th century Venetian satirist, Carlos Gozzi, whose Le Turandot provided both Boito and Puccini with the basis for for their own librettos. Gozzi's play, with it's mixture of humor and satire, providded the composer with a golden opportunity to create, as Israel Nestyev, Prokofiev's 'official' Soviet biographer points out, "a subtle parody of the old romantic opera with its false pathos and sham fantasy".
The opera opens with a Prologue in which four groups of characters (Tragedians, Comedians, Empty Heads, and Lyricists) argue for their respective theatrical preferences. The clamorous discussion is brought to an abrupt end by the 'Ridiculous People' who impose their ideas on the others by brute force (track 5 "Les Ridicules"). In Act 1, scene 1, the King of Clubs learns from a chorus of physicians that his son, the Prince, suffers from 'hypochondria', for which the only known cure is laughter (how great is that? I wish such foolishness worked for me!). Anyhow, a mirth-provoking entertainment is planned forthwith. In Act 1, scene 2, a fantastic card game with outsize cards takes place between Fata Morgana, the witch who is plotting with the Prime Minister to usurp the throne, and the court magician, Tchelio. In a peal of diabolical laughter, the witch wins (track 6 "Scene infernale"). The festivities designed to make the prince smile are preceded by the famous march (track 7 "Marche").
Fata Morgana, who states than in her presence the prince cannot laugh, is dubbed "Queen of Hypochondria" by the exultant prime minister. She appears at the palace disguised as an old woman and is pushed aside by the court jester and sent flying off in a ridiculous somersault. At this the prince bursts into laughter, joined by the entire court. The enraged witch then reveals her true identity and casts a spell over the prince: he will be consumed with passion for three oranges, which he will search for everywhere. In Act III the devil, Farfarello, appears with bellows and blows the prince and his faithful jester on their way to pilfer the oranges from a nearby castle (track 8 "Scherzo"). The two obtain their objective and flee into the desert. Truffaldino (the jester) cuts open two of the oranges when he becomes thirsty and his master is asleep. Out step a pair of princesses who promptly die of thirst. The third escapes the same fate as her companion princesses when the 'ridiculous people' in the mock audience lower a bucket of water on to the stage in the nick of time. The prince and princess immediately fall in love (track 9 "Le Prince et la Princesse").
In Act IV, after overcoming a number of obstacles erected by Fata Morgana and her accomplices, the prince marries the princess, and the villains escape through a trap door that strangely materializes in the center of the stage (track 10 "La Fuite"). I have always thought that the great Ingmar Bergman could have taken the story and turned it into a comical masterpiece (Max von Sydow as the prince, perhaps Erland Josephson as the King, or vice versa; the beautiful Liv Ullman clearly would make a brilliant wedded princess, Gunnar Björnstrand the prime minister, Ingrid Thulin the witch,Nils Poppe the jester (The Seventh Seal, he played the juggler/entertainer) Bengt Ekerot as the devil ("death" in The Seventh Seal, almost too obvious), and so on. Bergman is my favorite director, and I apologize for 'thinking out loud" via the keyboard ;)