Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije (CD review)

Also, Stone Flower suite; Dreams; Andante, Op. 50; Autumnal, Op. 8. Neeme Jarvi, Scottish National Orchestra. Chandos CHAN 10481-X.

Every line is in place, every "i" dotted. Maestro Neeme Jarvi conducts a letter-perfect performance, and the Scottish National Orchestra play with a precision that would make the Berlin Philharmonic jealous. So, why does this Lieutenant Kije suite sound so dull?

It's certainly not the fault of Russian composer Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953), who pulled off a popular coup by satirizing governmental bureaucracy at a time, 1934, when the Soviet government was not exactly friendly to anything but conservative, state-approved music. Prokofiev accepted an invitation to write the score for a movie, Alexander Feinzimmer's Lieutenant Kije, based on a satirical story by Yuri Tinyanov. The story takes place during the reign of the nineteenth-century Czar Paul, who had a rage for military pomp and ceremony. The Czar mistakenly overhears a phrase that he thinks sounds like "Lieutenant Kije," and his underlings are afraid to tell him otherwise. So they create a fictional Kije, duly enter him into the military records, and create a career of adventures for him. Thus, we get the suite the composer adapted from his film score.

The music can be wonderfully witty and mischievous, yet here it seems hampered, toned down, and it appears to be Jarvi's interpretation that is at fault. It is rather slow, solemn, and listless, missing some of the music's edgy humor and punch.

Fortunately, the accompanying works, particularly the suite from Prokofiev's ballet The Stone Flower, come off much better, the conductor's sensitivity completely at the disposal of the music. And with fine, vintage Chandos sound, the rest of the items on the program--Prokofiev's Dreams, the Andante, Op. 50, and Autumnal, Op. 8--go over smoothly and agreeably as well, if sometimes taken a bit hastily.

Recorded in 1985 and 1989 and here presented in a rerelease, the sound is wide and spacious, with an especially good sense of orchestral depth. While it perhaps lacks a little something in terms of inner detailing and deep bass response, it's surely good in all other respects.

The problem with the album, then, is the centerpiece, Lieutenant Kije, which I wouldn't call a first-choice recording of the work. For top recommendations you'd have to go to musicians like George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony), Vernon Handley and the LPO (EMI), Andre Previn and the LSO (EMI), or maybe Fritz Reiner and Chicago Symphony (RCA). But at a reduced reissue price and with good accompanying performances, the Jarvi disc is certainly worth auditioning.


1 comment:

  1. The Czar mistakenly overhears a phrase that he thinks sounds like "Lieutenant Kije," and his underlings are afraid to tell him otherwise.

    Sort of... The actual movie can be seen here or downloaded here.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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