Prokofiev's "Love For Three Oranges" Plays Cinematic Mind Games

Everyone knows that composer John Williams cribbed Holst's "The Planets" for his "Star Wars" soundtrack. Fewer know that the main theme and even the arrangement for "Star Wars" is almost a complete rip of Eric Wolfgang Korngold's score for the movie "King's Row" starring Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Robert Cummings. People absolutely freak out when I play it for them.

The suite "Love For Three Oranges" comes from an opera commissioned by the director of the Chicago Opera Association that had its premier in 1921 at the windy city's Auditorium Theater with the orchestra conducted by Mr. Prokofiev. The satirical opera's debut was a disaster. The critics hated it and the reviews were scathingly derisive but as with many great pieces of art, music or literature, its mocking of operatic conceits was simply ahead of its time and today the opera is performed around the world in productions that sometimes include "Rocky Horror Picture Show"-like audience participation encouraged by the producers.

You needn't know the first thing about classical music to thoroughly enjoy this heavily cinematic music that's inspired generations of film composers and arrangers. This symphonic suite from the opera is now part of the standard repertoire played in concert halls worldwide. Prokofiev lived long enough to see the work's acceptance. He died in 1953. He was 61.

Play "Love For Three Oranges" for the first time with the lights out and you'll hear instantly recognizable yet impossible to specify echoes and gestures used by later generations of film composers to frame action/adventure, horror and drama. Because of these connections to modern cinema and because the orchestration is often violent this suite hardly sounds dated. Really oldsters will recognize the march that was used as the theme for the CBS radio series "The FBI in Peace and War" that ran from the mid 1940's until 1958. We don't think of radio dramas having lasted that long into the television era, but they did. The march is also often used, appropriately enough, in satirical sketches to ridicule authority.

The accompanying "Scythian Suite" is a violent, eruption of a piece scored for an enormous orchestra well-populated with percussion instruments. It was composed after the Prokofiev had visited London where he heard Stravinsky's "The Firebird," and "Petrouchka". You won't fall asleep!

This Mercury recording was produced on July 4th, 1957 at Watford Town Hall, which like Walthamstow Town Hall continues to have a near legendary reputation for its fine acoustics. Watford Town Hall continues to this day to be used for soundtrack recordings and concerts. Despite the recording's vintage, it remains sonically astonishing and not in need of any excuse making asterisk. Engineer Robert Fine used three strategically placed 'especially sensitive" microphones to capture everything and the resulting spacious, three-dimensionality, intense instrumental focus and harmonic richness puts to shame most modern recordings. When this album was finally issued as one of Mercury's first stereo releases, it created a sensation among audiophiles for its sonics and among music lovers for the fine performances.

The 3 microphone production produced a picture similar to the ones Keith Johnson achieved years later for Reference Records: an extremely wide soundstage yet one with the orchestra well-bathed in hall acoustics. In other words, it's not a sound you could possibly hear live in a hall. The stage width is what you'd hear sitting very close to the stage, but the reverberant space relative to the direct sound is what you'd hear sitting well back in the hall. No problem: this is a recording not an attempt at ultimate reality and as an orchestral entertainment vehicle it's among the best.

I found my first original copy, appropriately enough, at a used record store on Chicago's South Side. Yes, where you'd expect to find more blues. This was back in the late 1980s when there was a summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I had been at The Absolute Sound for two years and took time off from the show to go used record shopping. What I knew at the time about records was not all that much compared to what I know now and my tastes were still geared toward rock but I knew about these Mercs and the RCAs so I went looking—at a time when CDs had just about taken over.

I found this dusty, disorganized mess of a used record store. Records were piled floor to ceiling. I can't believe I wasn't there looking for blues records, but I wasn't. Sorry to say. I probably passed on hundreds of great blues collectibles in my search for RCAs and Mercs (I'm embarrassed to admit). I went through every record in the store—literally—and until I got to the bottom of the very last pile, a few hours after I'd arrived, I found none.

At the bottom of the last pile was a copy of this record, SR-90006, which I bought for a few dollars. It was an FR-1, meaning it was a first pressing and it was in excellent condition other than one scratch near the end of the "Scythian Suite." Hardly worth a half day's worth of eating dust, but I was proud to walk out with my trophy, that had originally belonged to Glenn Roberts, who signed the back jacket on October 15th, 1960, three years after the recording date and thirty nine years after "Love For Three Oranges" made its premier in Chicago.

The original release caused a sensation because of its intense stereophony and its wide dynamic range. The original still sounds very good but honestly, Classic's 1990's era reissue at 33 1/3 and its 4 LP single sided release at 45rpm—both now out of print— just sound so much more dynamic and spacious, there's no comparison unless you've voiced your system to sound "right" on recordings that were dark, warm and obviously colored in a pleasing way.

Those Classic reissues, like this one, were mastered by Bernie Grundman from either the original tape or a flat one-off transfer from the original. However, this later mastering was done after Grundman had greatly upgraded his mastering chain. The sound is equally dynamic but it's harmonically and texturally richer. Still if you have the Classic 45 you're set. Otherwise this one is highly recommended. It's limited to 2500 copies and it too will surely go out of print.

Even if you know nothing about classical music or you're "scared" of it, turn the lights out and have a listen to this. It might "scare" you, but in ways you'll like!

John G's picture

Recognized the cover and dug through my records and sure enough had a FR-2/FR-1 copy in VG+ condition.  Very dynamic piece of music, that 45rpm version must be scary.

Mikey, what's your impression of the new Richard Thompson?

Paul Boudreau's picture

...the tip - sounds interesting.

hilton807's picture

The title to this comment is true. However, the Classic Records reissue blows it away. This is NOT to say that this new ORG sounds BAD. It doesn't. I think it is worth the price, as I said in the title of my comment. It is just that the 33rpm issues by Classic Records is much, much better, so much better that I consider it reference quality. I do not own the 45rpm version of the Classic Records reissue. Comparing this ORG 45rpm to the Mercury original, as Mike has done, is fair. And it has a good back story.... Perhaps he has never heard the Classic Records 33rpm reissue? If he did, I doubt he would rate this new reissue a 9. I can only imagine how the Classic Records 45rpm sounds! So, this ORG is worth the money they are asking for it. Are the Classic Records out of print reissues worth the collector's prices they are (if you can find them) asking? Probably.

beaur's picture

This is where these reissues get confusing:

ElusiveDisc has copies that they label as Classic Records on 200g Quiex for $33.  

Acoustic Sounds has the same Classic Records 200g for $195 (a test pressing).

Are these the same LPs?  The catalog numbers look similar.

Both have the ORG also.