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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Alexander Nevsky Op. 78 (1938) [38:35]
Lieutenant Kije Suite, Op. 60 (1933-4) [19:45]
Eva Podleś (mezzo)

Latvian State Choir
Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord/Pas-de-Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. live, Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France, 1 June 1994. DDD
NAXOS 8.557725 [58:20]
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Naxos has re-released this briskly-paced performance originally available on Harmonia Mundi.

My first impression is how clean this recording is for a live concert. There is very little "audience participation", and, as a previous reviewer has made mention, the miking of the orchestra is up close with just that clear immediacy that this music demands.

The opening "Russia under the Mongolian Yoke" is performed quite quickly, almost a full minute (for a three minute-long piece) faster than Previn’s recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Telarc, and half a minute faster than Chailly’s with the Cleveland Orchestra on Decca/London. For the expansiveness of the music, this sacrifices nuance and contrast, which Chailly and Previn have in greater measure on their respective recordings. Chailly, and, especially, Previn, have greater intensity here, which better sets the stage for the entrance of the chorus in the following "Song about Alexander Nevsky". For this particular section, Casadesus’s brisker pace works well, supplementing the bravado and snap at "Oh how we fought, how we hacked them down!" The choir does better here, with the brash tone of the soldiers bragging of a good fight. Following this, the pace, unfortunately, is also fairly fast for the wonderfully menacing "Entry of the Crusaders into Pskov". Considering that the representation is of robed crusaders and the oppression they bring, the impact is blunted with the crusaders hustling into the city gates at a rather quick clip after a wonderful slight decelerando from the orchestra. Chailly has more hushed intensity from the orchestra and chorus alike, taking the instrumental sections more quickly than the choral. Casadesus takes the inverse approach, with the choral sections faster.

The climax of the piece, "The Battle on the Ice," with its ominous repeated semitone in the lower strings (the inspiration for John Williams’s Jaws theme?) here also disappoints, with the music starting too softly and, in comparison to Chailly and especially to the Previn, with not enough intensity from the chorus on their entry into the fray with their nonsense Latin chant. Once the smoke is finally swept from the trampled snow, the human cost is counted in the hauntingly beautiful "The Field of Death" gorgeously sung by Eva Podleś. It is here that the Casadesus recording truly shines. The dark quality of Podleś’s voice hits the mark perfectly. She is emotive and intense; Arkhipova, with Chailly, sounds brittle by comparison. This is the high point of the disc — a wonderful performance. Lyrics, along with translations into English only are in the booklet.

The second work is also film music, and of an entirely different tone. Prokofiev always did well with sarcasm and satire, and what better vehicle for that than a film based on governmental ineptness and bureaucracy? Based on Tynyanov’s book — and safely set in times comfortably prior to the Revolution — the film concerns the exploits of an imaginary officer, created by clerical error. Here Casadesus does very well, always with a focus on the fun being poked. The "Romance" section — famously nicked by Sting for his song "Russians,"—plods along comically, and Kije’s wedding music is wonderfully over-inflated and pompous. The closing "Death of Kije" has gravitas, along with the collective sigh of relief from the officials that the troublesome non-existent officer is finally done away with once the empty coffin is put underground.

These are fine performances, but one I’d not choose over other available recordings. For the price, however, the disc is worth purchasing for the wonderful six-and-a-half minutes of Podleś’s performance of “The Field of Death".

David Blomenberg

see also review by Euan Bayliss



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