In the summer of 1941 Prokofiev and his wife were living amidst the pine
forests of Kratovo near Moscow. The news of the invasion of Russia by Germany
came on 22 June and Prokofiev rushed over to the nearby house of Sergei
Eisenstein to share and confirm the news. Rather like Vaughan Williams in
England, Prokofiev wished to do his composerly duty for his country. He wrote
some patriotic songs and a march but soon the circumstances brought to fruition
an idea on which he had been brooding for some years - a massive operatic
setting of Tolstoi's War and Peace.
He and various other composers and artists were transported to a colony at
Nalchik in the Caucasus foothills. There he wrote his symphonic suite 1941
which was to form the basis for his film music for Partisans in the Ukrainian
Steppes. He also completed the first six scenes of the opera. The remaining
seven were completed in Tbilisi, the Armenian capital. Tbilisi was therefore
the backdrop for the composition of the scenes most directly reflecting war
and nations in conflict. The Nalchik scenes capture the more idyllic moments
in the opera.
Prokofiev's flair for stagework and human drama still goes largely unrecognised.
As a composer he occupies a strange hinterland between the modern greats
such as Britten and Shostakovich and the deeper background occupied by
Miaskovsky, Bax and Klami to take a few names at random. Although his popular
successes of the Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf have guaranteed
him a profile much of his music is little known.
His operas have been recorded and broadcast but they have made little headway
in the popular repertoire or the CD catalogue. In this sense he is perhaps
like Janacek whose operas enjoy occasional performances but who has not yet
been accepted in the sense that Puccini has been embraced by the majority
of the listening public.
War and Peace is a vast canvas across which to spread an evening's opera.
In fact the work is longer than this recording suggests. The main competition
for the present set comes from the Rostropovich-conducted Erato set of the
complete opera. This complete version plays for over four hours but let it
be said immediately that the performance, while accomplished and occasionally
emotionally impressive, is not in the same league as this Melodiya set. The
Erato is, of course, in better sound and with a more refined orchestra.
However refinement and digital sound are not everything as the Armenian
conductor, Melik-Pashayev and Melodiya's 1961 engineers soon demonstrate.
You have to be an ambitious composer to attempt a setting of War and Peace.
Prokofiev tempered ambition with practicality concentrating on two storylines
and the counterpoint between them. There is the story of Natasha and Andrei
- a love story without a happy ending but with ecstatic contentment along
the way. There is also the wide vista of history: two nations in conflict;
the aggressor France; the invaded Russia; Napoleon against Kutuzov. The Russian
Winter against the Gallic Summer. The triumph of nature over Napoleon contrasts
with the denial of happiness for the attractive but too easily swayed Natasha.
The present recording is a classic and I recall hearing about it (though
never hearing it) during the 1960s when I started to buy Gramophone. From
then onwards it became a fixture, often seen in London's Colletts, Farringdons
and Record Hunter, as an expensive Melodiya box (with that strangely off-putting
'fragrance' that decorated Russian import LPs in those days). In the early
1970s it was issued on an EMI-Melodiya boxed set.
I had better declare my interest now. I like the Russian orchestral sound
and the ring of sung and spoken Russian language. One of these days the Melodiya
recording of Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin: music and sonorous narration, will
be reissued; a treat in store. There is something in the brashness and the
poetry of performances (braying French horns included) and recordings on
many Melodiya issues which I find irresistible. Other recordings often seem
bland by comparison.
Melik-Pashayev here directs a performance which captures and articulates
summer evenings, doomed innocence, callous exploitation, brazen patriotism,
heroic triumph and wintry negation. He is aided by a practically ideal cast
strongly dominated by Vishnevskaya, Arkhipova, Kibkalo and Petrov. The men
fare better than the women.Vishnevskaya is in young voice but there are still
moments (very few) when her character comes over as more mature than the
ideal Natasha. Perhaps the young Maggie Teyte or Netania Davrath would have
been even better suited to the role.
The first disc opens the work in much the same spirit as it closes: with
a dense-toned choir strenuously hymning Russia's pain and threatening any
aggressor. Track 2 opens with serene strings recalling the delightful love
music from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The tenor's meltingly Delian tone
(echoes of Once I Passed Through a Populace City) is memorable. The theme
of summer and love dominates the first four tracks.
In the great ball scene emotional striving meets opulent grandeur amongst
dazzling lights. The ball plays out Natasha's triumph against delightful
choral singing, the inconsequential society banter of the aristocracy and
a choral paean of praise (entry of Tsar Alexander I).
Prokofiev is a master of orchestral detail. The score has many moments of
vocal splendour but the glistening and ever active orchestral tissue is what
continues to hold the attention. Listen for example to the extraordinary
upward striking coups of the orchestra in track 8
In track 9 a deliciously grandiloquent waltz launches out over a typically
oompah figure. A confidently forward trumpet adds a touch of flaming ardour.
The waltz may well be known to you from the Waltz Suite. A Prokofiev waltz
is never simple. It is over-arched with strata of passion and tragedy.
In scene 3 the touching Natasha theme returns in plaintive beauty. Do not
miss the singing of 'ne mozet byt' again set off with plenty of teeming
detail from the band. In the next two scenes the characters seem racked with
passion and the slightly nervy intoxicated theme is charged with the potential
for exploding into the grand moment. At 1.10 [track 16] Vishnevskakaya catches
well the fervent and febrile passion. She acts with her voice: both gutsy
and warmly sensual.
Disc 2 opens with scene 5 which is ushered in with a jerky theme like clockwork
running down and evolves into a 'Dance of Life' theme. In fact the love story
and society aspects of this opera often recall the psychological dimensions
of Edvard Munch's paintings. The banter between Anatol and Dolokhov also
comes across vividly and leaves us despising the exploitative Anatol who
sees Natasha as his next conquest. The accompanying orchestral mosaic is
Scene 6 returns us to Natasha. Her growing torment is hinted at by a wayward
little theme which begins with some discipline and then decays into wildness.
The blithely eager pizzicato work in track 3 (2:30) is worth sampling. Speaking
of highlights not to be missed do listen to 'iskal v romanticeskoj ljubvi'
from Vladimir Petrov. His portrayal of Pierre is in fully passion-drenched
From scene 8 onwards the opera becomes increasingly preoccupied with national
conflict. In track 10 Denisovs stern iron-willed aria in defence of
the Russian homeland is notably heroic. In Track 11 the Russian chorus vibrantly
invokes warlike incitement which echoing contemporary events. We should not
forget that the opera was written against the background of Russia's invasion
by the Nazis. The words sung by the chorus seem more suitable to clanking
Panzers than Napoleon's regiments: 'and in battle well crush the iron
regiments / The enemys dark tracks are everywhere.'
This music recalls the bloodier psalms of David and Havergal Brians
Symphony No. 4, reeking with death, merciless slaughter and devastation.
Some respite is offered by the return (track 12) of the pliant love theme
from the summery nights of the earlier scenes.
Andrei Kibkalo is in honey-toned voice. The love theme segues into the concert
waltz recollecting happy days with Natasha.This does not last long. The barbarity
in the fanfares and in the huzzas of the troops as Kutuzov enters the scene
at track 15 is impressive. This contrasts with a faintly absurd panoply of
Rossinian rushed fanfares and fife and drum hornpipes as the various regiments
parade at the gallop in front of Kutuzov (track 16).
Speaking of Kutuzov, Alexei Krivchenya has a commandingy burred and rollingly
powerful voice and the close of scene eight is noble and fatalistic with
waves of ripe fanfares from the trumpets. The age of the recording tells
noticeably at this point with some distortion, but it is nevertheless glorious.
Prokofiev did not find any valiant glory in battle. The acrid sourness of
death and of young lives blotted out is what comes across here. No doubt
Prokofiev was touched by the horrendous losses suffered by the Russians during
the years 1941-2 as surely all Russian families were touched.
The last disc brings us to scene 10 where darkly threatening French horns
come to the fore and shards of marching figures provide a backdrop for
Lisitsian's Napoleon. His victories of earlier years refuse to repeat themselves
and frustration afflicts him. The burning of Moscow is conveyed by massed
choirs and in track 9 some of the most impressive orchestral music in the
opera lights up the sky in an apocalypse of flame.
The delirium of the dying Bolkonsky and return of the rose blossoming love
theme is made the more telling by the choir singing 'piti piti piti' and
whispered recollections of the happy days long gone recalled by the ball
theme. This is another highlight worth sampling.
The final tracks carry the drifting defeat of snow storms gripping the hearts
of the defeated Mediterranean French soldiers. Track 13 uncannily conjures
up the snapping and blinding snow in drifts and flurries as the wind howls
and whistles. The next track mixes wailing and heroic shouts with whistles
of dismay and heroic exultation - a powerful cocktail. The defeat of Napoleon's
legions is complete and the great opera ends with a panegyric of victory
is which the chorus's shouted hurrahs have no trace of reserve or embarrassment.
When this production was mounted (1959) those singing would have lived through
the war years and the sense of victory (only 15 years earlier) would have
been vividly recaptured.
The orchestral details are rich and rewarding but the precision of the massed
singing voices (both men and women) is extremely impressive. Nothing is slurred
or fogged. The final chorus in particular is extremely emotional with an
intoxicating sense of journeys-over confidence and a belief in the
green hills of tomorrow stretching into the sun dappled distance. All in
all this represents is a deeply moving experience.
The booklet is pleasingly designed in a rich pine green with a cover picture
by Bilibin which in its commanding simplicity links with the art of the Finn,
Akseli Gallen-Kalela whose artwork often features on the covers of Sibelius
The libretto is in transliterated Russian, English, German and French. The
English needs some attentive proof-reading.
The sound quality is clear with practically no hiss. The recording is in
stereo but the dimension that really matters and to which there is the highest
fidelity is the vibrant charge of the music - fully and faithfully captured.
Finally my only real complaint is that I wished that courage and state enterprise
had produced a truly complete recording. This one lacks one hour of music
by comparison with the Rostropovich Erato. By contrast however there is a
intensity and identification with the musical and spiritual message that
is only intermittently attained in the Erato. I have not heard the Valeri
Gergiev Philips version although the only review I have seen was not
A clear and cordial recommendation for this recording.
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - Yevgeny Kibkalo
Natasha Rostova - Galina Vishnevskaya
Pierre Bezukhov - Vladimir Petrov
Helene Bezukhova - Irina Arkhipova
Anatol Kuragin - Alexei Maslennikov
Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova - Yevgenia Verbitskaya
Field Marshal Kutuzov - Alexei Krivchenya
Napoleon - Pavel Lisitsian