Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije at 45 RPM – An Audiophile Pressing to Shame Them All

More Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

More Prokofiev / Lt. Kije / Abbado

xxxxx

A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

This Japanese 45 RPM remastering of our favorite recording of Prokofiev’s wonderful Lt. Kije Suite has DEMONSTRATION QUALITY SOUND. For starters, there are very few records with dynamics comparable to these. Since this is my favorite performance of all time, I can’t recommend the record any more highly. 

Most of what’s “bad” about a DG recording from 1978 is ameliorated with this pressing. The bass drum (drums?) here must be heard to be believed. We know of no Golden Age recording with as believable a presentation of the instrument as this.

The drum is clearly and precisely located at the back of the stage; even better, it’s as huge and powerful and room-filling as it would have been had you attended the session yourself. That’s our idea of hi-fidelity here at Better Records.

Real Dynamics

Over the course of this and many other shootouts, we’ve discovered that it’s practically impossible to find the right volume setting for this album. It’s so dynamic that no matter what volume you set it at the loud portions get too loud. There is a huge amount of deep bass on this recording and that, coupled with the practically unparalleled dynamics, means that you must have a great deal of amplifier power to reproduce this one properly. Either that or a very efficient speaker such as a horn. I confess I would need a great deal more power than I have at my disposal to get the climaxes of this recording to play cleanly.

The Best DG Recording

If you love this work of Prokofieff’s, Abbado brings him to life on this record like nobody else. There simply is no other performance of this calibre. It’s easily one of the Top 5 DG records that I know of. In fact, come to think of it, for SOUND and PERFORMANCE I would have to say it’s one of The Best Records on DG I have ever had the pleasure to play. The Planets with Steinberg and the Tchaicovsky Ist Piano Concerto with Richter would be in that distinguished group as well.

Wit and Whimsy

My two cent’s worth: only Abbado really gets the whimsy and the wit of this work: the outright goofiness of the music portraying Kije bouncing down the road to war without a care in the world, until the incoming start coming in and all hell breaks loose. There are so many wonderful themes that Abbado finds new colors, tempi and phrasing for, especially in the way the saxophone is played. (On the best copies the timbre of the sax is right on the money.) If you’re like me you will no doubt find yourself whistling and humming these melodies for days after playing the album.

An Opening Like No Other

The opening is the quietest, and the most distant, of any version I’ve ever heard, exactly the way it should be, coming from the back of the hall and barely audible above the noise floor of the vinyl. Soon thereafter the big bass drums start beating, and you know you’re playing a very special record. Not a perfect record by any means but still one of the most magical I own.

If you’ve got a big speaker system, this is the kind of record it was designed to play. I’ve got one, because any speaker that can’t play this record, and others with this sort of orchestral power, is one I could never be happy with. And if your stereo doesn’t make you happy, what good is it?

Awesome Grooves

Have you ever looked at the grooves on the famous Telarc LP of the 1812? They actually reproduce a blow up photograph of the groove on a sticker attached to the cover, to show you just how visible the groove excursions are. Well, this record has grooves that look like those! In the first movement, when the tympani and bass drum start pounding away — and they pound more powerfully than any performance of this piece you have ever heard — you can see it in the grooves. Huge amounts of loud, deep bass can be seen in the grooves of this pressing with nothing but the naked eye, and on this record you could be half blind and still make them out.

When I see powerful grooves on a record, my heart starts to beat faster. There are many bad sounding records with good looking grooves — please don’t mistake my meaning here — but some of the most amazing “finds” I have ever discovered I picked up because they had hot looking grooves.

Anyway, at 33 RPM DG usually did not do a good job of cutting the bass onto their standard pressing. Oftentimes it’s blubbery and smeared. We forgive the lack of bass definition on the record because the performance by Muti is so EXCITING and POWERFUL!

There is often a slightly sour quality to the brass on the 33 version. Again, it’s DG. We expect that sound from them. We love the music, we love the performance, and we have simply learned to put up with the shortcomings in the sound. The best pressings are of course much less sour than most.

However, as good as this 45 is, these strings will never be mistaken for the strings on the great Living Stereo recordings. This album does not have the sweetness of the best Londons, nor the immediacy of the best Mercs. It’s still a DG from the ’70s. But it is a recording that, through mastering of the highest calibre, has been raised to a sonic level far beyond the sound of most DGs.

My friend Robert Pincus has some interesting comments about this record.

“This warms my audiophile heart! This is THE Lt. Kije! The one and only! I still love it! It’s the king! Reiner is a joke! A big bad joke! An expensive joke! Listen to how the same orchestra plays! The sound ain’t perfect. OK, it’s bass heavy, a bit transistory, but there’s so much MAGIC! Can you believe how much of today’s high end equipment can’t play this? Maybe that’s why the compressed RCA is today’s audiophile choice! I heard this LP when it was new. It was my first exposure to Lt. Kije. I’ve never had another!”

Can you believe the way this guy writes?! He’s got enthusiasm, I’ll give him that! (By the way, the above comments are those of Robert Pincus and not necessarily those of the management, but in this case the management wholeheartedly agrees, except for that bit about the RCAs, which are incredible records and frequently amazingly dynamic.)

A Poor CD Transfer

The CD of this recording sucks, a no-noised piece of garbage that is an affront to all right-thinking audiophiles. If you’re the kind of audiophile that has no turntable, you are plain out of luck on this one. Maybe you want to rethink that single format position. An awful lot of good music and better sound is passing you by.

Movements

The suite, in five movements broadly follows the plot:

1. Kijé’s Birth: Emperor Paul, listening to a report, mishears a phrase and concludes that the lieutenant exists. He demands that “Kijé” be promoted to his elite guard. It is an offence to contradict the Tsar, so the palace administrators must invent someone of that name.
2. Romance. The fictional lieutenant falls in love.
3. Kijé’s Wedding. Since the Tsar prefers his heroic soldiers to be married, the administrators concoct a fake wedding. The vodka that the Tsar approves for this event is very real.
4. Troika.
5. Kijé’s Burial. The administrators finally rid themselves of the non-existent lieutenant by saying he has died. The Tsar expresses his sadness, and the civil servants heave a sigh of relief.

According to the score, the duration of the Suite is 18 minutes.

Instrumentation

Baritone voice, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, tenor saxophone (sometimes performed on bassoon), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, cornet, 3 trombones, tuba, 3 percussionists (cymbals, little bells, triangle, bass drum, snare drum, tambourine), harp, piano or celeste, and strings.