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Serge PROKOFIEV (1891 - 1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Cantata Op.78 (1937) [35.05]
Incidental music to Hamlet, Op.77: Ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Ivan the Terrible Suite from the film score, Op.116: Dance of the Oprichniks.
Pushkiniana (suite compiled and edited 1962 G. Rozhdesvensky) [19.38]:-
Hermann; Liza; Ball; from Queen of Spades
Menuet; Polka; Mazurka; from Eugen Onegin
Sambor’s Castle; from Boris Godunov
Irina Gelahova, mezzo soprano
Stanislavksky Chorus; O. Kusnetzof, chorus director
Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Yablonsky, conductor
Recorded Studio #5 State Broadcasting House, Moscow, Russia, 5 June 2002
Notes in English and Deutsch. No photographs.
Parallel English translation of (transliterated) Russian text.
Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 and DTS surround sound.
Plays only on DVD and DVD-Audio players. Does not play on CD players.
NAXOS 5.110015 [63.19] DVD-AUDIO

Comparison Recordings:
A. Nevsky, film w/soundtrack,Temirkanov,St.Petersburg PO [NTSC] RCA LD 627056
A. Nevsky, restored film music score, Temirkanov, St. Petersburg PO RCA 68642
A. Nevsky Cantata, Fritz Reiner, CSO & Chorus, Rosalind Elias RCA 60176-2
A. Nevsky Cantata, Mario Rossi, VSOO, Anna Mar. Iriarte, cto Vanguard LP
Ghost of Hamlet’s father: Valery Polyansky, Russian State SO Chandos 10056
Ivan the Terrible Suite, Neeme Järvi, Philharmonia Orchestra Chandos 8977

This is an interesting coupling of one of Prokofiev’s most familiar and acknowledged masterpieces with some unfamiliar music that most will never have heard before, even heard of before. DVD-Audio was created for big orchestral/choral works like Nevsky with rich use of percussion and exotic orchestral effects. I have loved this music ever since I first heard the Mario Rossi recording on Vanguard, and used to go regularly to the cinemathéque to see garbled 16 mm prints of the film. I studied Russian in college in part so I could understand the libretto, and used phrases from the text in class—Ya pa-idu na... (‘I shall have gone across to...’) from the opening of the aria is the way I remember this construction.

The tempi are generally slow in the very atmospheric parts, allowing one to savour the textures. The orchestra is astonishingly clear, the frequent bass drum notes frighteningly vivid. The chorus achieves an amazingly detailed characterisation. In The Crusaders in Pskov, the Germans are feeling sorry for themselves; at the beginning of The Battle On The Ice, they’re mad as hell and they’re going to make somebody pay; as they drown in the icy waters of the lake, they wail and moan realising that not a soul within a thousand miles has a bit of sympathy for them, all the while singing mostly the same notes. I guess I am still imprinted on Anna Maria Iriarte’s clear, soaring, lyrical performance of the big aria in the Mario Rossi recording; Gelahova sounds close and solemn to me. Eugenia Gorochovskaya sings on the reconstructed film soundtrack and is about midway in her approach between the two others.

My esteemed MusicWeb colleague Colin Clarke was not impressed with this performance as issued on regular CD, preferring, among others, one by Gergiev, a conductor I admire very much, but whose Nevsky I have not heard. But this recording as presented here in DVD-Audio is the best version I’ve ever heard! It is not surprising that good recorded sound could improve the perception of a performance of this work so dramatically, as it depends in so many ways on subtle orchestral textures. I recall other instances where reviewers have revised their rating of the quality of a performance when it was subsequently reissued in an enhanced sound format. This is actually ironic in this case because the original sound reproduction on the film’s optical sound track was very much poorer in fidelity than the scrappiest LP sound. But what we are listening to here is the Cantata, and Prokofiev reorchestrated the music for concert performance. The recently issued "restored" version of the film with Temirkanov conducting the full orchestra score re-recorded onto laserdisk and VHS (apparently NTSC only) apparently had its orchestration enhanced to match the published cantata, rather than working from the original orchestral parts. There is both more music and less. The battle music and bell ringing are extended somewhat, but the first part of the aria is not sung, only the later parts, and the final celebration music seems shortened. The performance is naturally constrained to follow the timing of the scenes in the film and one would want this recording only together with the visual track, although the CD has some extra bonus tracks, presumably images.

The seven movement Pushkiniana Suite brings together a number of shorter pieces from Prokofiev’s vast output of stage music, and constitutes what could be an Eighth Symphony or a ballet suite. The quality and interest of the music is high, and the performance and recording here are everything one could wish.

In the case of the Hamlet music excerpt we can compare the same orchestra under two different conductors, both with exceptional recording quality, and here I would give the nod to Polyansky with a warmer, closer orchestral balance. This Chandos recording may come out on SACD and would then be truly formidable. Watch this space.

The Ivan music accompanies the brief colour sequence in the film, a riotous ballet. Järvi plays it with terrific energy, and a little more weight than Yablonsky, albeit receiving somewhat brighter and more brittle recorded sound. This one is too close to call.

So give your Reiner Nevsky to the church charity sale, and run, do not walk, to buy this disk. While you’re out buy some new woofers for your DVD sound system (or upgrade your earphones). You’ll be glad you did.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review of the CD by Colin Clarke

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