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Alexander Nevsky, Op.78
Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano)
Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
Conducted by Fritz Reiner

Violin Concerto*
Leonid Kogan (Violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Pierre Monteux
(Recorded in 1958* and 1959)
RCA Victor "Living Stereo" 0902663708 2 [76.39]

Like many people I came to classical music through films and TV. Perhaps the ability to take in longer spans of music than that which was offered by pop records was nurtured whilst peering at the silver screen down at the local Odeon and the subsequent collecting of soundtrack LPs by composers like John Barry and Maurice Jarre. For my generation Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" also opened many classical music doors, but I recall even more Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, used for the TV coverage of the first moon landing in 1969, really starting me off. Then there were film soundtracks commissioned from established classical composers and Toshiro Mayuzumi's score for John Huston's "The Bible" was one that I remember very well. Then two of my earliest musical explorations were film scores that had been turned into concert works: the Seventh Symphony of Vaughan Williams from the music for "Scott of The Antarctic" and then, the main work on this disc, Prokofiev's cantata that originated in the soundtrack for Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" - perhaps the first film soundtrack to find its way into the concert hall.

Recorded in 1959 Fritz Reiner conducts a tightly controlled performance of a work that couldn't have been familiar fare in America at the time. Indeed I wonder if the contemporary political climate had something to do with the fact that the chorus and soloist sing in English. Reiner is excellent at suggesting the important difference between the music for the Teutonic Knights and that of the Russian defenders. A contrast that forms the backbone of Prokofiev's musical scheme. The vivid early stereo recording, every detail clear, splendidly catches the former's brassy, percussive barbarism. Though a little more depth to the sound would have helped the warmer, more tuneful, music of "our lads" the Russians even more. Nevertheless the lovely "Song of Alexander Nevsky", sung with dignity and pride by a chorus trained by the young Margaret Hillis, makes its moving effect. The highlight of the work is the long "Battle on the Ice" and I suppose any performance of the work will stand or fall by how well this comes off. The sound recording in this passage only shows its age at the extremes of the frequency ranges and Reiner's zeal to make sure every strand of the complex score is brought out ensures we can keep track of the quickly unfolding story. More recent versions show greater abandon in the battle music but Reiner is persuasive. It only remains to say that Rosalind Elias is deeply moving in her lament for the dead that follows and Reiner's sharpness of focus ensures an exultant, though highly disciplined, celebration at the end. You can hear why the Russians won. They just beat those well-drilled Teutons at their own game. A classic recording restored in its best sound.

The Prokofiev will be the main reason for buying this disc but it's an equal partner to the recording of Khachaturian's Violin Concerto recorded in Boston the year before. This was made two days after Leonid Kogan's American debut and reminds us what a superb artist he was. The first movement gets a flowing, glittering performance with the violin perfectly balanced with the orchestra. This is a slightly more atmospheric sound balance than on the Prokofiev and probably owes much to the spacious acoustic of Symphony Hall in Boston. The slow movement manages to maintain the surface sheen of the rest yet also be searching and lyrical. Kogan seems completely at home with the whole piece, standing him in good stead for the energetic and tuneful last movement. This was the first time Pierre Monteux had conducted this work which was by a composer with whom he was not usually associated. You would never know. If you don't know this work, or own a recording of it, this is a fine opportunity to acquire it now.

A thoroughly enjoyable disc from a great era of playing and recording.

Tony Duggan 



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