PROKOFIEV'S BALLET "The Prodigal Son," produced in 1929, is still performed on both sides of the Atlantic, but the concert suite from that score is never heard in our halls and hadn't even been available on records for years. Now, however, the entire score has been recorded, for the first time, by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude VCL 9036; cassette VCS 9036).
The complete work, at 33 minutes almost twice as long as the suite, is very much worth hearing. It is richer in contrasts--some sections contain virtual pre-echoes of "Romeo and Juliet" while others hark back to the abrasive gestures of the "Scythian Suite"--and, of course, there is a good deal of material Prokofiev reused in his Fourth Symphony. The performance itself is splendid.
Filling out side two is another recording premiere, Prokofiev's so-called "American" Overture, Op. 42, composed in Moscow during a brief visit home in 1926. The jazz-and-blues-influenced rhythms and colors presumably constitute a souvenir of his sojourn in the New World. It is an unsmiling but absorbing piece, with the sort of drive that went into the Second Symphony. The scoring is unusual: wind octet and pairs of pianos, harps and basses, with celesta and cello, period.
An "American" feature, and one far more recognizable as such, turns up on another disc of little-known music by a famous Russian composer with the same conductor on the same label; this one is devoted to previously unrecorded works of Shostakovich. The collection is labeled "From the Manuscripts of Different Years" (VCL 9035; cassette VCS 9035).
The "Americanism" here is "Tahiti Trot," Shostakovich's orchestration of Vincent Youmans' "Tea for Two," executed in just 45 minutes in 1927 on a bet with the conductor Nikolai Malko. The treatment is not merely slick, but incredibly original and full of surprises. One feels Shostakovich must really have liked the tune to have had such fun with it.
He may not have thought of it as fun a bit later. What is not mentioned in the annotation (written by Rozhdestvensky himself) is that it was over "Tahiti Trot" that Shostakovich found himself in official disfavor with Soviet authorities for the first time. In June 1929, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, at a special conference on music, singled out this piece and the "fox-trot problem" for serious discussion, picturing the "fox-trotting West" as "evil" and "a threat to culture." Shostakovich then had to write defensive statements, and he also asked Malko to be careful about performing the piece abroad. The editors of a party magazine pronounced Malko "no less responsible than the composer for propagandizing this 'gem' of light-genre music." ("Light-genre" was a term of condemnation.) Shostakovich incorporated "Tahiti Trot" into the score of his ballet "The Age of Gold," but that work survived only a few performances before it, too, was denounced, and this brilliant but innocuous piece was not heard again for decades. Evidently it has been officially "rehabilitated" now. It is all laughable, but at the same time it is chilling to think of the consequences of so charming and good-natured jeu d'esprit.
The other pieces on the record are also mostly early ones and mostly arrangements, the earliest being an orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's song "I Waited for Thee in the Grotto," produced when Shostakovich was only 15. The latest, an orchestration of Beethoven's song "The Flea" for Yevgeny Nesterenko, who sings it in the recording, came in 1975, the year of Shostakovich's death. Also offered here are a little suite from the music for an animated cartoon called "Tale of the Priest and His Hired Man Balda"; an overture composed in 1929 for Erwin Dressel's opera "Armer Columbus"; vocal settings of Two Fables by Krylov; wind ensemble transcriptions of two Scarlatti sonatas; and a rather gratuitous reorchestration of Johann Strass' "Excursion Train" polka. But it's "Tahiti Trot" that makes this record irresistible.
The sound on these discs, both taped in 1979, is really first-rate. Either Soviet engineers are getting much better at the art of sound recording or Vox (the Moss Music Group) is doing a much better job of processing Melodiya tapes than other U.S. outlets have done--or, most likely, both. Fine pressings, too.
Shostakovich's son Maxim, in what appears to be his first recording to reach us of music other than his father's, conducts the Moscow Radio Orchestra in three seldom-heard works of Rimsky-Korsakov--"Sadko," Op. 5; Overture on Russian Themes, Op. 28, and Sinfonietta on Russian Themes, Op. 31--all taped in 1974 and issued now on Eurodisc 200 441-366.
"Sadko" (an independent "musical picture," not from the opera so named) is, or can be, an enchanting piece, but the slow-paced presentation here has little of the fairy-tale charm or the sheer voluptuousness of the classic Ansermet performance on London, or the convincing flow of the less magical but still appealing one under Milton Katims on Turnabout.
The other two works fare better, and there is no other recording of the Sinfonietta at present. Neither the Sinfonietta nor the Overture is a particularly memorable piece, though both are engaging enough. In the Sinfonietta one recognizes the "Khorovod" tune Stravinsky used in "The Firebird" and a theme we know from the first movement of Borodin's Second Symphony; in the Overture we hear the "Slava" cited by so many composers (Beethoven, in his second "Rasumovsky" Quartet, as well as various Russians) and a folk song Tchaikovshy used in his "1812."
An altogether different level of performance, as well as musical substance, is represented in RCS' new "Point 5" half-speed-remastered reissue of Fritz Reiner's 1960 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of Rimsky's far more familiar "Scheherazade" (ARP1-4427). Here is yet another stunning demonstration of what made the Chicago orchestra under Reiner one of the most remarkable performing entities of our century. Reiner actually did very little in the way of "interpretation": he simply followed the composer's instructions scrupulously and allowed the moods and effects written into the music to take care of themselves, characteristically but unostentatiously revealing detail after detail. He also got his players, of course, to exceed most recognized norms of orchestral virtuosity and brilliance. When the revitalized sound is as dazzling as it is on this disc, the Reiner legacy is too vivid to be put in the "historical" category: like the Strauss and Respighi items in this series, this "Scheherazade" is fully competitive with the most recent showpieces.