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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op.78 (1938) [38:35]
Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op.60 (1933) [19:45]
Ewa Podles (mezzo-soprano)
Latvian State Choir
Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. live, Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France, 1 June 1994. DDD
previously released on Harmonia Mundi
NAXOS 8.557725 [58:20]


This re-release by Naxos brings together music from two of Prokofiev’s best known film scores on one disk. The cantata came from the original film score for Eisenstein’s film, Alexander Nevsky, and the suite from the Alexander Feinzimmer film Lieutenant Kijé.

The first thing to note is that this CD was in fact recorded live, although it’s not clear until the applause at the end that this is the case. There is no audience noise and the recording is very sharp, clear and close to the orchestra.

Alexander Nevsky opens with “Russia under the Mongolian Yoke”, with harsh open octaves setting the scene perfectly. This is followed by a song about Alexander Nevsky recalling an earlier battle. The chorus in this recording are the Latvian State Choir and, although I am not a Russian speaker myself, the words seem to be very clear and the choral singing excellent. The song about Nevsky is beautifully interpreted with a clear contrast being drawn between the more reflective parts of the song at the start and finish and the recollection of battle in the central section. The third section suggesting the appearance of Teutonic knights in the city of Pskov, with brass and percussion blaring out a bleak warning, is performed in this recording with enough gusto to bring a chill to one’s spine! 

I had a chance to hear the recording of this work by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and it is interesting to note that Reiner adopts a much slower tempo than Casadesus for the second and third parts, which seems to me to work better, even if there is the slightly off-putting factor of Reiner’s recording including the text in English.

The fourth section (Arise, ye Russian People), allows a distinct contrast to be drawn between the different emotions; the call to arms which opens this song, along with the more reflective middle section. Again these contrasts are handled excellently in this recording.

It is the fifth section (The Battle on the Ice), which is the longest. In fact this section took up a large part of the film. The performance is clean and precise. Perhaps it is this precision that takes away a little from the tension that one would expect in a battle scene; for me there is still enough there to get the adrenaline going. Special mention should go to the percussion section, who are able to drive the music on without overpowering it, no mean feat with such music. On balance, I would have to say that the Reiner/Chicago SO recording narrowly wins in terms of building tension, but there’s not a lot in it.

The sixth section (The Field of Death) is where we hear the mezzo-soprano, Ewa Podles, lamenting the lives lost in battle. Her wonderful deep voice carries these sentiments perfectly, assisted by some sensitive playing.

The final section (Alexander’s Entry into Pskov) ends the work on a triumphant note, aided by another excellent piece of chorus singing; they are able to hold their own to the very end and are not overpowered by the orchestra.

Overall, this is an excellent performance of Prokofiev’s colourful and exciting score, which I would recommend highly.

The second work on this disc is the suite from Lieutenant Kijé. This quirky score places quite a few demands on the different sections of the orchestra, and there is a fair amount of solo playing throughout.

In the first movement (Birth of Kijé), we hear hints of much to come, from the opening fanfare and piccolo tune, to the various mentions of Kijé’s theme, the different members of the orchestra are precise and allow the quirky nature of the music to come through.

The Wedding scene features a cheeky solo which is normally played on a cornet, with a constantly shifting tonal centre, this is a challenge for any player, and leads straight into the famous Troika.

The final movement (Death of Kijé) brings together many of the themes that have gone in previous movements, the Romance, which is interrupted by the cheeky cornet theme from the Wedding scene, and ends with the return of the opening fanfare. Overall this performance is very good without perhaps offering enough of the quirkiness which is the hallmark of this work.

Euan Bayliss


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