Semyon KotkoRecordings


Illustration by V. Levental.
Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, 1985.

Artists: N. Gres (Semyon Kotko, tenor); T. Yanko (Semyon’s mother, mezzo-soprano); L. Gelovani (Sofia, soprano); T. Antipova (Frosya, soprano); N. Panchekhin (Tkachenko, bass).
Conductor: Mikhail Zhukov.
Orchestra/Ensemble: USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir.
(Chandos CHAN 10053).

Although this is the opera’s first commercial release by the State record company, Melodiya, it was not its first recording, as revealed in a fascinating 1959 review from Sovetskaia Muzyka, which this journal publishes in translation for the first time (see p. 6). On 20 January 1959 Moscow Radio broadcast a performance of Semyon Kotko, by then a completely forgotten opera. The conductor was Mikhail Zhukov (1901-1960), who had also conducted the opera’s première in 1940. There is no doubt that it was this broadcast that brought Semyon Kotko to the attention of the cultural authorities, and eventually to recognition. A year after the broadcast Melodiya issued its recording and the State Music Publishing House published the piano score. A wave of new productions in the USSR and the Soviet bloc followed. Finally, a thorough study of the opera came out in 1963, written by Marina Sabinina (Semen Kotko i problemy dramaturgii Prokof’eva, Moscow: Sovetskii Kompozitor).
     The Melodiya recording offers the nearly complete score and the original libretto (with the exception of a few instances where references to the Germans have been edited). There are three short cuts, respectively in Act III/scene 14; Act IV/scene 2 and Act V/scene 3.
     This collector’s item is now available in the “Chandos Historical Opera” series with a booklet that provides the libretto in Cyrillic and English. The introductory article regrettably includes inaccuracies: Prokofiev settled back in Moscow in the spring of 1936, not “1935”; the opera was revived in 1960, not “1970” and, finally, Prokofiev composed Alexander Nevsky just before Kotko, not "a few years earlier".
     The only other available recording of Semyon Kotko is by the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus under Valery Gergiev.

Artists: Viktor Lutsiuk (Semyon Kotko); Lyudmila Filatova (Semyon's mother); Olga Savova (Frosya); Yevgeny Nikitin (Remeniuk); Gennady Bezzubenkov (Tkachenko); Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Sofya); Olga Markova-Mikhailenko (Khivrya).
Conductor: Valery Gergiev.
Orchestra/Ensemble: Kirov Orchestra and Chorus.
(Philips 464 605-2).

Like Zhukov’s recording this one includes one short cut in Act V/scene 3, although slightly different. The accompanying booklet provides the Russian libretto in transliteration, in English, French and German, with an excellent lead article by Andrew Huth.
     These two performances are deeply contrasted – they reflect fundamental differences in performance style and highlight opposed expectations between 1960 Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia. Zhukov undertook this recording at the end of his life – he died in November 1960 – and his performance reflects the weight of experience. It is well paced, if at times prosaic, and he clearly gives priority to the text, which remains audible at all times. Gergiev’s overall frantic pace on the other hand pushes the singers to their limits in their ability to deliver the text. As a result, and in contrast to Gergiev’s recording which lasts 2 hours and 17 minutes, Zhukov’s spreads over three hours. Zhukov emphasizes the weight of authority in village life with a wonderful portrayal of Tkachenko and Remeniuk, while Gergiev pokes fun at it. Zhukov’s performance will strike a chord with those listeners familiar with the earthly pace of life in rural countryside and the hierarchical structures of peasantry, a dimension that escapes Gergiev altogether. But Gergiev is far superior in rendering Prokofiev’s sarcasm, his dark and manic side. Zhukov’s familiarity with the score and the fact that he had worked with the composer makes his performance truly historical, and we might hope that it reflects Prokofiev’s intentions in some way. I find these two recordings indispensable: both interpretations are artistically inspired and professional, and also complementary in that they reflect powerfully a vision that belongs to a different age.   (
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