Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

War and Peace
- opera in 13 scenes (1941-42)
libretto by composer and Mira Mendelson after the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - Roderick Williams
Natasha - Ekaterina Morozova
Pierre Bezukhov - Justin Lavender
Helene Bezukhova - Ilona Ionova
Anatol Kuragin - Oleg Balashov
Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova - Victoria Livengood
Field Marshal Kutuzov - Alan Ewing
Napoleon - Alan Opie
Russian State Symphonic Cappella/Valeri Polyansky
Spoleto Festival Orchestra/Richard Hickox
recorded live 4-10 July 1999, Spoleto
CD1: 68.20 CD2: 37.30 CD3: 59.20 CD4: 70.00

Chandos's laudable opportunism in digitising a complete recording from a sequence of Spoleto Festival performances has, for the most part, paid off. This is just as well as this must have been a major project; filling a gap in the otherwise plentiful Chandos Prokofiev catalogue.

The recording is clear and clean - perhaps a little distant when compared with the raw grip of the Melik-Pashayev Melodiya (reviewed here back in 1998 and still to be had). The choral work is convincing and generates some thumping momentum and belligerence in the song of the Muscovites at the end of Track 1 of CD4. The large team of solo singers is also more than competent and I must single out Justin Lavender's Pierre for the sense of doom and desperation he engenders without toppling over into amateur dramatics.

In fact Prokofiev operas seem to be doing quite well with the release of the Philips version of the much decried Semyon Kotko (overall not at all a banality). War and Peace does not have political hurdles to clear. It already has the status of a major opera with world-wide productions. It is a spectacular of wide-screen proportions with the grand history of Napoleon and Kutuzov, Russia and France, interleaving and poignantly reacting with the human dimension in the stories of Natasha, Pierre, Kuragin, Bolkonsky.

This is not the first recording of the complete version. For years the opera was represented by the 1960s Melodiya version which was cut by 25% to 3 hours. That version, conducted by the volatile Armenian, Melik-Pashayev, is not to be written off. That said, the promise of a further hour of music is irresistible. Both Rostropovich (Erato, not heard by me recently) and Sergeiev (Philips) have complete versions. The Erato was the first and should now be available at mid-price. It was distinguished by a strong all-Russian cast (although there were several overly mature voices there) and a French orchestra. I found it patchy with much to admire in the singing but the overall span seemed oddly uninvolving. Perhaps I would feel differently if I heard it again. I have not heard the Philips so must reserve judgement. If it is as good as their Semyon Kotko it will be well worth attention.

The Chandos is a typically classy production. The 300pp booklet is housed in a slip case alongside a double width box holding the 4 CDs. The libretto is in French, German, transliterated Russian, English side by side and then, a curious touch, a separately paged version in Cyrillic and Italian side by side. Presumably it was impossible to get six languages in side by side columns without making the font too small. From an ergonomics point of view it would be helpful if at the top outside edge of each page of the booklet the Act, scene, CD and track numbers for that page could be shown.

For all the skills of the singers and orchestra (track 5 CD 4 6.20 - a scorching Mussorgskian recollection) and a well-behaved audience in good Mediterranean health there is more in this score than is brought out. I would categorise this as good, probably the best recorded sound (if you accept the live conditions). A dependable and often engaging version. It is steady of pulse but does not crackle with the un-nerving drama of the much cut Melodiya version.

Recommended but in the knowledge that there is more to come. We await an approach to the 'ideal' full length version. If you buy this you will not be short-changed and you could wait a long time for a better account of the complete opera.

Rob Barnett  

Reviews from previous months

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