PROKOFIEV: Suite from Lieutenant Kijé, Op. 60. Suite from The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 53a. The Ugly Duckling, Op. 18.
Andre Laptev, baritone; Jacqueline Porter, soprano; Sydney Symphony Orch/Vladmir Ashkenazy, cond.
EXTON SACD EXCL 0049 TT: 48:13

SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39. Symphony No. 3 in C, Op,. 52. Rakastava, Op. 14.
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orch/Vladimir Ashkenazy, cond.
EXTON SACD EXCL 00279 TT: 76:12

STRAUSS: Elektra
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (Elektra). Angela Denoke (Chrysothemis). Dame Felicity Palmer (Klytämnestra); Matthias Goerne (Orest). Ian Storey (Aegisth). London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, cond.
LSO LIVE SACD 0701 TT: 57:22 & 51:00

Exton is a label new to me, and thus far they have released more than 40 SACDs. The two mentioned above are the only ones I have heard, and they show great promise for the label, but there is a major question about Exton. This is a super-premium price label, beautifully packaged with liner notes in Japanese and English. However, for whatever reason, the Prokofiev program listed above, although issued on SACD, is not multi-channel. Audio quality is very clear wide-range stereo, but with today's technology, why isn't it multi-channel? The Sibelius disk is 5.0 and benefits from rear channels although they are only used for ambience. And of course Ashkenazy is an old hand in this repertory; he recorded all of the Sibelius symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra more than a quarter of a century ago, and these fine interpretations are still in the catalog. Ashkenazy also recorded Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 with the Concertgebouw, symphonies 6 and 7 with the Cleveland Orchestra. This Exton Prokofiev disk is of particular interest as it offers the conductor's only recordings of the three works, Lt. Kijé played with the baritone soloist in the Romance and Troika. Both soloists are excellent, soprano Jacqueline Porter effectively relating the story of the ugly duckling. It seems odd more music of Prokofiev wasn't included: playing time of this disk is only 48:13. The two early Sibelius symphonies are given superb performance, although the Swedish orchestra strings could use a richer sound for the sweeping Tchaikovskian themes of Symphony No. 1. My favorite performances of this are the two Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmlonic recordings, the 1990 version available only on CD. The one to get is the 1986 live recording issued on DVD with outstanding multi-channel sound (REVIEW). The Exton issue also includes another early work of Sibelius, Rakastava, originally written for chorus heard here in its final form for strings and gentle percussion. This gentle story of love, longing and separation is a welcome addition to this fine disk, bringing playing time up to a respectable 76:12.

The prospect of an Elektra conducted by Valery Gergiev is enticing but ends up disappointing. Not because of the conductor, whose attention to detail is extraordinary, or the playing of the LSO which is in top form. The problem is the singing. American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, who has been performing mostly in Europe as Isolde, Senta, Kundry, Leonore (Fidelio), and Elektra, is a very uneven singer. Her voice has a distressing unevenness throughout her entire range. Angela Denoke's Chrysothemis suffers from the same problems evident in her recent Salome: insecure pitch and uneven production, although she does sing her final cries of Orest! effectively. Dame Felicity Palmer easily is the finest of the three female principals. She has enjoyed a distinguished career and now at the end of her career—she was born in 1944—shows her command of her craft, although the role of the anguished queen doesn't require a beautiful sound. Matthias Goerne is excellent as the returning brother. This Elektra was recorded during performances January 11, 12 and 14 in the Barbican (although booklet photos obviously were taken during rehearsals). Producer James Mallinson did a superb job with engineering. This is a handsome SACD production with complete text in German and English. So far as Elektras come and go, this is quite far down on the list: see our major feature on all recordings of the opera (ELEKTRA).

R.E.B. (July 2012)