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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Cantata Op.78 (1939)
Scythian Suite ‘Ala and Lolli’ Op.20 (1915)
Carolyn Watkinson (mezzo-soprano)
Latvija Choir
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
Recorded live at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig on 23 February and 13 May 1991 DDD
WARNER APEX 0927 48747-2 [56.20] Superbudget


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This budget Apex Prokofiev coupling from Kurt Masur was, I have to confess, completely new to me. It has, presumably, been unearthed from the Teldec archives, and enters a pretty crowded and highly competitive field. There is the excellent EMI Double Fforte from Previn and the LSO, which couples Alexander Nevsky with the oratorio arrangement of another Eisenstein collaboration, Ivan the Terrible, a logical and worthwhile pairing. There is the lower mid-price RCA disc from Reiner and the Chicago SO, which has Nevsky paired with the Lieutenant Kije suite and Glinka’s Ruslan overture, stunning performances in generally good sound, though climaxes are a little congested. There is also, and probably best of all, the mid-price Abbado DG disc which has the same coupling as Masur, but also manages quite easily to find room for the Kije suite, thus representing excellent overall value, even at the slightly higher price.

If we take the stunning Ala and Lolli music that the 23-year old Prokofiev wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes first. This is a young composer clearly influenced by the Rite of Spring, and revelling in it. Pounding rhythms, loud dissonances, big orchestral effects and an exotic sound-world show the young firebrand very much at home in his barbaric subject matter. Masur’s Leipzig orchestra acquit themselves well, though to turn to Abbado and the Chicago SO is to hear a different level of music-making. Abbado was always at home with this music, and his superbly drilled band offer levels of virtuosity that all but silence criticism. Take the second section, entitled Tshushbog and the Dance of the Spirits. Here Prokofiev sets up one of his favourite toccata-like ostinatos, over which the huge brass section scream their primitive folk-like material. In Masur’s hands, it all sounds a mite too tame and polite, and the fractionally slower tempo robs the music of its ferocious momentum. Abbado drives his Chicago forces relentlessly, and though this is not for the faint-hearted, the results are thrilling. Masur certainly shapes the more tender moments with great care for detail – the Night movement is very atmospheric, almost expressionistic, but Abbado is equally sensitive to these mood shifts, and offers a performance of greater flair and contrast.

Some of the same comparative criticisms can also be made against Masur’s Nevsky, though on the whole it is more successful. This is partly due to the choral singing, which is tightly controlled, well balanced and in tune, no easy task in a live rendition of this score. Abbado’s LSO Chorus are also on excellent form, and the differences in these two performances are more subtle than in the Scythian Suite. Masur’s opening sends less of an icy chill down the spine, and his shaping of the opening string figuration is a little matter-of-fact. Abbado’s LSO woodwind really pierce the texture and set the scene for us. Masur has plenty of bite and attack in the third section, entitled The Crusaders in Pskov, and his brass section clearly enjoy themselves – the tuba is suitably dominant in the central episode, though this could be false microphone highlighting. The famous Battle on the Ice starts with some awkwardly notated string writing that the Leipzig orchestra do not quite get around, though they make up for it in a marvellously controlled ponticello passage at 2.03. The marching armies are also helped along by Masur, who includes an unmarked but effective accelerando into the main Allegro. Abbado is also superb here, and whips up great excitement at the climactic points.

Carolyn Watkinson makes a moving soloist in the Field of the Dead lament, though Elena Obraztsova sounds fractionally more idiomatic in this same section for Abbado, her slightly steelier tone bringing a chill rather than any comfort. The great final hymn to the motherland, Alexander’s Entry into Pskov, is excellent in both accounts, and it could be said here that Masur has the edge, his live rendition eliciting a suitably triumphant dénouement from his forces.

Recording quality is good rather than outstanding in the Masur, and the engineers have not overcome live problems of balance. The sound is more immediate on the Abbado disc, which certainly helps in music of this sort. Overall, it is hard to recommend Masur in preference to Abbado, his DG disc being one of the very best things he has given us. The extra music makes up for the price difference, and the playing from the Chicago Symphony and LSO is superb. If you’re on a severe budget, you probably won’t be disappointed in Masur, but pay the extra – it’ll be worth it.

Tony Haywood


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