THE SUITE Prokofiev assembled from his music to the film Lieutenant Kizheh has established itself as one of his most successful works, as measured by the frequency with which it is programmed and recorded. The Scythian Suite, which, perhaps more than any other single work, earned him a reputation as a wild man when it was first performed in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg (only three years after the Paris premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, with which it shares some features), has turned up far less often and is still regarded more or less as a novelty. They make a stunning pair, as Westminster Records demonstrated with an early mono LP on which they were performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Hermann Scherchen, the only such coupling, apparently, to precede the gorgeous new one on Deutsche Grammophon by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado (2530.967; also on cassette, 3300.967.)
Prokofiev has commanded the productive attention of a number of young Italian conductors in recent years - Riccado Muti and the seriously underrated Alberto Zedda as well as Abbado, whose Berlin recording of the Third Piano Concerto with Martha Argerich (DG 139.349) has become something of a classic, and whose account of the Third Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra (London CS-6679) is one of the high points of the composer's discography, Abbado shows a surprising feeling for the wit - both gentle and biting - in Kizhen, and a not an all surprising conviction in the still exciting (if no longer "barbarous") Scythian Suite, with absolutely magnificent playing from the great orchestra and a sonic frame from DG's engineers to compare with some recent digital releases.
The Chicago Symphony, as it happens, had recorded each of these works once before - the Scythian Suite under Desire Defauw on 78s which were "state of the art" in their day (transferred to a short-lived Bluebird LP), Lieutenant Kizheh conducted by Fritz Reiner on RCA LSC-2150, which is still in the catalogue and which, even after 21 years, may well be Abbado's closest competition. The sound was considerably ahead of its time, and the performances of both Kizheh and the overside Song of the Nightingale of Stravinsky show Reiner not only at his most brilliant but with an altogether rare twinkle in his eye.
In case you have the Reiner disc, or the recent Ormandy remake of Kizheh, with Kodalay's Hary Janos Suite (RCA ARL1-1325), you might be attracted to the new HNH release on which Serge Baudo conducts the Orchestre de Lyon in the Scythian Suite and the "Four Portraits and Denouement" from Prokofiev's opera The Gambler (HNH 4073). Both works are very well played and handsomely recorded, but in neither respect can this version of the Scythian Suite be compared with what Abbado, the Chicago orchestra and DG have given us. The version of this work with the most impact after Abbado's is Antal Dorati's with the London Symphony Orchestra, which is of about the same vintage as Reiner's Kizheh and now is on Mercury Golden Import, SRI 75030 together with the suites from The Love for Three Oranges and Bartok's Miraculaous Mandarin; the drawbacks are the gratuitous interruption for turnover between movements of the Scythian Suite and a softening of Mercury's original sonic bite in the recent Dutch remastering, both of which combine to leave Abbado way, way out front.
The material from The Gambler and The Love for Three Oranges, incidentally, may be had on Melodiya/Angel SR-40157 in fine performances under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who fills out that disc with the only recorded performance known to me of Prokpfiev's early little cantana Seven, They are Seven - a most intriguing piece, which might be regarded as a sort of choral supplement to the Scytian Suite.
(Lest the spelling of Kizheh used here instead of the familiarkije be thought perverse or deliberately provocative, I might pointout that the cause of phonetic clarity, which is of particular importance in the case of this title because it is the point from which the whole tale is developed, is not well served by the persistant use of a French transliteration of a Russian term among Anglophones, for whom, as bothRussian and English writers agree, Kizheh represents a closer approximation of the sound.) CAPTION: Drawing, no caption, Drawing by Zarko Karabatic