With good reason, Cinderella is billed first on this CD, which appropriately enough features a picture of a glass slipper on the cover. Why, you ask, should it be given prominence over Roméo and Juliet, a more popular and perhaps slightly better work? The performance of the eight numbers comprising the Suite #1 from Cinderella is simply splendid, the best I've ever encountered. The Pas de chale (No. 2) is so spirited, so full of humor and color, and so brilliantly played, it would be hard to imagine a better performance. Ditto for The Quarrel (No. 3): has the middle section ever been played with such delicious venom or the outer sections with such playful menace? And you hear so much detail that is often buried or barely audible in other performances. While some of this sonic clarity may be attributable to the sound engineers, the lion's share must be credited to the conductor Arnold Katz (1924-2007), who despite the name was a prominent Soviet conductor who led the Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra for many years. My only quibble with the Cinderella performance is the rendition of Midnight (No. 8), which features a barely audible bell to represent the striking clock, but an aggressive snare drum playing in its stead. But even here the music has impact and is fully enjoyable.
The Stone Flower Wedding Suite is also well played. Love Scene (No. 1) and Dance of the Young Girls (No. 3) feature strikingly beautiful lyrical episodes that Katz and his orchestra render with an awareness to the music's colorful orchestration as well as to its considerable melodic appeal. The closing Wedding Dance (No. 5) is as colorfully played as you're likely to hear.
As for the Roméo and Juliet Suite #2, Katz and company turn in fine work too, but a few passages come across as a bit eccentric: the latter half of Roméo and Juliet before parting (No. 5) features some over-the-top horns and brass (if this were 3-D, they'd be jumping right out of the screen at you), and in Roméo at Juliet's Grave, the heartrending return of the love theme is cheapened a bit by an over-prominent saxophone. But, not to mislead, the overall performance must still be counted as very strong.
As for the competition in Cinderella, Rozhdestvensky, Previn, Ashkenazy, Pletnev and Michail Jurowski, all made fine recordings of the complete work and Stokowski, Hugh Rignold, Kuchar and Slatkin turned in strong recordings of excerpts. But on the basis of this effort by Katz, I would say he goes to the heart of the music as well or better than any of them. In the Stone Flower, Rozhdestvensky and Noseda made excellent complete recordings, different as they were: Rozhdestvensky was fairly brisk while Noseda was generally relaxed in his tempos. Silvio Varviso and Järvi made fine recordings of excerpts, but Katz can stand with the best of these. In Roméo and Juliet the competition is stiffer, with complete recordings by Previn, Maazel, Ozawa, Gergiev (twice), Ermler, and excerpt recordings from just about every conductor and his brother. Again, Katz compares well, though for excerpts of this work, I don't know if anyone has ever surpassed Karel Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic in an effort from 1959, which has been reissued countless times. All this said, if you want a sampling of Prokofiev's music from these three ballets, you can't go wrong with this excellently played, deftly interpreted and vividly recorded disc. By the way, I should mention that these performances were originally recorded in June 1997. Strongly recommended.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Cummings.