Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije Suite (HQ SACD review)

Also, Suite from The Love for Three Oranges and The Ugly Duckling. Andrei Laptev, baritone; Jacqueline Porter, soprano; Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sydney Symphony. Exton hybrid HQ SACD EXCL-00049.

Vladimir Ashkenazy has been one of the world's leading pianists for over fifty years, branching off into a simultaneous conducting career about midway through his piano calling. Since then, he has proved himself as good a conductor as he is a pianist, as this latest recording of music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) demonstrates.

The suite from Lieutenant Kije (1933) finds Prokofiev at his most playfully sardonic. Based on a satiric story by Ury Tynianov, Prokofiev's music for the movie version of the tale, presented here in a suite for voice and orchestra, tells of a minor mistake getting out of hand. In the narrative, a scribe makes an error writing the word for "Lieutenants" as "Lieutenant Kije," and the Czar of Russia reads it as referring to a real person. Rather than correct the Czar's mistaken impression, something no one dares do, the army makes up a "Lieutenant Kije" and gives him a complete fictional history, which becomes the subject of the story, the movie, and the music.

Ashkenazy introduces Kije's "birth" in a most grand, military style, as though Kije really were an important general. Then, for a change, Ashkenazy gives us the vocal ballad in the Romance. Following that, The Wedding of Kije is appropriately comical in its sarcastic fashion; and the Troika sleigh ride and drinking song, also sung to orchestral accompaniment, are robust. Finally, Ashkenazy is aptly ironic in Kije's mock funeral. The wit is biting, and the conductor and his Sydney players seem to be having fun with it in their earnestly amusing way.

Prokofiev based The Love for Three Oranges (1924) on a satirical play by Carlo Gozzi. Here, the music is more obviously, outwardly, humorous than in Kije, with slapstick abounding; and Ashkenazy is not afraid to see it that way. He paints the comic gestures in broad strokes, and while the music may not have the same melodic subtlety or appeal as that in Kije, it is fun in its own right. Besides, everyone will recognize the famous Marche about halfway through.

The disc concludes with The Ugly Duckling, for voice and orchestra after Hans Christian Andersen. Prokofiev originally wrote it as "a symphonic poem for voice and piano" in 1915 but decided to orchestrate it in 1932. It is alternately cheerful, boisterous, scary, mournful, festive, and exultant. Certainly, it's colorful music, with Ashkenazy making the most of its varying tonal palette. However, one should not confuse it with children's music; unlike the composer's Peter and the Wolf, this one is much more serious despite its fairy-tale foundation.

In terms of sound, the Japanese Exton label calls the disc an "HQ SACD" and says they recorded it "Session & Live." I wish they had explained all of that better. The SACD part is easy enough; it refers to the audio-storage disc jointly developed by Sony and Philips back in the late Nineties, a disc with the capability of high-bit-rate playback in two-channel stereo or multichannel on one layer (requiring a special Super Audio CD player) and regular Red Book playback on another layer (for use with any standard CD player). As for "HQ," that may refer to the use of a unique HQ disc, said to produce playback of better quality and greater consistency than ordinary discs, better even than gold-plated discs. So, theoretically at least, we should be getting the best-possible playback advantages with HQ discs and SACD processing.

As to "Session & Live," the booklet note goes on to say "Recording Location: The Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House" and then below it, "The recording was made at the Sydney Opera House Recording Studio." From this information, I presume we have different portions of the disc recorded live and in the studio. The recording dates were November 5-7 and 17-20, 2009, and since there is never any audience noise from any part of the program, it probably doesn't matter how Exton recorded it.

In any case, I listened to the SACD layer in two-channel stereo using an Sony SACD player and found the sound among the best, most natural, most transparent I've heard in ages. The voice in Lieutenant Kije is so realistic, you could reach out and touch the singer (not that you'd want to unless you were really weird, but you get the idea). The stage depth gives the orchestra a lifelike presence; the air around the instruments sets each of them apart, but not in a multi-miked manner; and the wide dynamic range and impact further set the sonics apart. If it weren't for a slight, low-level hum in the background, the recording would be absolute state-of-the-art.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa