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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78a (1939) [36’58]. Pushkiniana (compiled and edited Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, 1962) [20’03]: Queen of Spades (1916) – Hermann [5’30]; Liza [2’42]; Ball (Polonaise) [2’54]; Eugene Onegin (1936): The Larin’s BallMenuet [1’38]; Polka [1’37]; Mazurka [1’31]. Boris Godunov (1936) – Polonaise [4’11]. Music to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Op. 77 (1937/8) – Ghost of Hamlet’s father [6’19]. Ivan the Terrible, Op. 116 (1942-6) – Dance of the Oprichniks [2’15].
aIrina Gelahova (mezzo); aStanislavsky Chorus; Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Rec. Studio No. 5, Moscow State Broadcasting House on May 28th-June 5th, 2002 DDD
NAXOS 8.555710 [65’34]

It is with the ‘fillers’ that the musical worth of this disc lies.

New recordings of Alexander Nevsky enter a crowded and distinguished field, so need to have something fresh about them. They also need a demonstration-standard recording. Unfortunately, this new version from Naxos sports neither. It is a competent traversal of a score that appeals directly to our baser emotions, but little more than this.

Nevsky begins promisingly with the powerful extremes of expression and dynamics laid bare. Impressions continue along this path with a sensitively phrased and balanced opening to ‘Song about Alexander Nevsky’. The chorus sounds light, however (possibly a reflection of the recording). ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’ continues this trend (the brass needs to be heftier, and it would appear the recording is similarly unwilling to support this). Nevertheless, the journey to the climax is the natural result of appropriately cumulative preparation. A lustily defiant ‘Arise, ye Russian people’ precedes a graphically cinematographic ‘Battle on the Ice’, highlighting the cantata’s filmic links.

Orchestral preparation is again in evidence in ‘The Field of Death’, for solo mezzo (here Irina Gelahova, a soloist from the Stanislavsky Moscow Academic Musical Theatre). Gelahova is not overly-vibratoed, to her credit, heightening the prevalent mood of sadness in the process. A pity the recording does not allow the finale to be the stirring, roof-raising climax Prokofiev intended. If Nevsky is your priority, your cash should lie elsewhere: the unstoppable Valery Gergiev on Philips (with the Kirov Orchestra and coupled, more conventionally perhaps, with the Scythian Suite), released in April this year, represents high-class Prokofiev (473 600-2 review).

Pushkiniana is a compilation of movements from aborted projects put together by the indefaticable Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Of the three excerpts from Queen of Spades, despite an interesting ‘Hermann’ (which would not sound out of place in Romeo and Juliet), it is the ‘Liza’ movement which stands out as lyrical, tender and meltingly graceful and the highlight of the ‘fillers’. The ‘Polka’ of the Onegin music features a spiky solo piano as a nice textural surprise; the ‘Mazurka’ is really quite tongue-in-cheek, sleazily saucy at times (for the complete incidental music to Onegin, try Edward Downes’ 1994 version on Chandos CHAN9318). The Boris Godunov excerpt, which was not heard until 1957, is possibly not what one might expect for this subject given its Mussorgskian history: far too much fun!. An ominous sounding ‘Ghost of Hamlet’s father’ provides contrast for the festive close to the disc, ‘Dance of the Oprichniks’ from Ivan the Terrible. Circus-like tomfoolery abounds, and here the orchestra certainly sounds as if it is enjoying itself.

Richard Whitehouse’s notes are excellent, leading the listener by the hand through Nevsky and placing the remaining items faithfully in context. If you are looking for your first Nevsky, this is not for you. However, Prokofiev completists will welcome the fillers.

Colin Clarke


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