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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Ivan the Terrible Concert Cantata Op.116 (1939) [74:11]
Irina Arkhipova (mezzo); Anatoly Mokrenko (bar); Boris Morgunov (narrator)
Ambrosian Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/ Riccardo Muti
Alexander Nevsky Cantata Op. 78 (1938) [42:27]
Anna Reynolds (mezzo)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Bells Op.35 (1912) [35:24]
Sheila Armstrong (sop); Robert Tear (ten); John Shirley-Quirk (bar)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, July, Sept.1977 (Ivan); Nov.1971 (Nevsky); Oct.1975 (Bells). ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3 81513 2 [74:11+ 78:12]

Here is yet another straight repackaging of an already successful Double Forte issue, one which has already stood the test of time. I do wish EMI would make it worth our while to consider re-buying this by offering texts and translations. They were missing before, they’re missing again, and in three major works all involving soloists, choirs, narrator and Russian words; it’s simply not good enough. That is my major gripe - and it’s a familiar one regarding budget reissues - but for the performances alone I have nothing but praise.
Whatever you feel about the cantata arranged from Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible by Alexander Stasevich in 1961, it did at least give some glorious music a concert life. I’m not entirely convinced by the narration, especially in this rather histrionic rendition by Boris Morgunov, but that could be coloured by not having a clue what he’s on about. You can always skip tracks and revel in the superb playing of the Philharmonia, who really did play for their lives for Muti at this time. I still have a wonderful Tchaikovsky Manfred from this same period, and it’s never been bettered for playing or recording. If you want to hear what I mean, just sample track 17 ‘The Storming of Kazan’, with its echoes of the Sixth Symphony, or the riotous ‘Dance of the Oprichniki’ (tr.25) where orchestral virtuosity and choral discipline combine to brilliant effect.
Previn’s Alexander Nevsky is also as good as any in the catalogue, despite being over 35 years old. His choir is Arthur Oldham’s LSO chorus and very good they are: even the occasionally rough tenor tone seems to have a Slavonic authenticity, and Anna Reynolds is very poignant in her set piece ‘Field of the Dead’. The famous ‘Battle on the Ice’ displays the Previn/LSO special relationship at its best, the snarling brass and lustrous strings sounding as good as ever. This Nevsky does have strong competition, even in the budget sector - including Previn’s own Los Angeles remake - but I doubt any will be more impressive, certainly not the one comparison I had to hand from Kurt Masur and his Leipzig forces on Warner Apex – though he does have full texts.
Rachmaninov’s paean to his beloved tintinnabulation, the massive choral symphony The Bells, is also deeply impressive. Even if some may miss the sheer tonal depth and magnificence of a genuine Russian choir here, there is no doubt that the LSO chorus acquits itself admirably, bringing real feeling and warmth to this very personal setting of Poe. Sheila Armstrong is outstanding in her solo contribution and the recording has worn very well. Indeed, the famed Kingsway Hall acoustic is another star in all these analogue recordings which, in their re-mastered state, have a presence and impact that is still demonstration-worthy. There is a bit of pre-echo in more exposed passages but this was only really detected on headphones at pretty high volume. Two very well-filled discs of classic performances for around £8.50 is a real no-brainer, even without those valued texts.
Tony Haywood


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