The Bells, Op. 35 (1913) [39:55] Sergei PROKOFIEV(1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78* (1938) [38:25]
Elena Prokina (soprano); Daniil Shtoda (tenor); Sergei Leiferkus
BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
*Alfreda Hodgson (mezzo); *Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Evgeny
rec live, 19 April 2002, Barbican Hall, London; *30 January 1988,
Royal Festival Hall, London
ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5069 [78:30]
The cantata which Prokofiev fashioned from his music for Eisenstein’s
1938 Film, Alexander Nevsky, may not contain his greatest
music and may not be his most subtle score but it’s vivid,
dramatic and powerful stuff. The Technicolour orchestration
and exciting music might be thought to be right up Evgeny Svetlanov’s
street and this 1988 concert recording proves that it was indeed
so. He’s right on top of his game in this performance
and so too are the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra.
The music leaps out of the loudspeakers right from the start.
‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’ is oppressive
music and Svetlanov distils a potent atmosphere. The graphic
orchestration comes across, as it should, in primary colours.
The gentlemen of the chorus - sounding anything but ‘gentlemen’,
thank goodness - are suitably robust in ‘Song about Alexander
Nevsky’. Then the action really starts. There’s
lowering menace in ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’ - Svetlanov
racks up the tension superbly - and soon afterwards we reach
the celebrated ‘Battle on the Ice’. This is bitingly
dramatic. Svetlanov builds the music masterfully into a headlong
charge. The battle, depicted through some razor-sharp Philharmonia
playing, is frenetically exciting. This is visceral stuff yet
Svetlanov avoids any suggestion of crudity. After the battle
has finished the quiet end - right out of Romeo and Juliet
- is delicately done.
‘The Field of the Dead’ brings us a reminder of
the artistry of Alfreda Hodgson - and a reminder, too, of what
a great loss was her tragically early death just four years
later at the age of fifty-two. She sings with wonderfully rich
tone and she manages to be deeply expressive without any excess.
The concluding ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’
is joyful and exultant; this is music of liberation with an
undoubted political message, but never mind. With the Philharmonia
Chorus in full-throated voice Svetlanov fashions a splendidly
celebratory end to the work - no wonder he holds the final chord
on for so long!
This tumultuous and idiomatically performance of Alexander
Nevsky, superbly executed is tremendous stuff. Surely the
disc can’t get any better?
Oh, yes, it can!
On a couple of occasions in the past when reviewing Rachmaninov
performances I’ve expressed the hope that one day this
2002 Svetlanov performance of The Bells might make it
onto disc. Now, ten years after the conductor’s death,
prayers have been answered. I’ve never actually heard
this performance because I missed the original broadcast but
I read ecstatic reviews at the time and wished I had heard it
- this was long before the BBC’s i-player service. Although
not intended as such, it was Svetlanov’s last-ever concert:
just a few days later, on 3 May 2002, the conductor, who had
been in failing health for some time, died in Moscow at the
age of 73. Don’t imagine for a moment, however, that this
sounds like a performance by an elderly, sick man: a fully-fit
forty-year-old would be proud of this effort! Incidentally,
in the first half of this concert he’d already conducted
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony (review).
The performance starts auspiciously with bright, fresh orchestral
playing in the opening to ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’.
The first choral entry is splendidly forthright and it’s
soon clear that in Daniil Shtoda we have the right sort of voice
for the tenor solo. He’s tremendously virile and clear
and I thought his performance was superb. The choral singing
is just as fine and, all in all, this is an opening of great
impact. A little while ago, when reviewing
Gianandrea Noseda’s live recording of this work, I complained
that the choir - and, indeed, the orchestra - was set too far
back and, as a result, lacked sufficient impact. Admittedly
that was in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall but
here, in the tighter acoustic of the Barbican, there’s
no danger of low impact. The BBC Symphony Chorus is well recorded
and sounds excellent whether they’re singing full out
or, as often in this piece, at a quieter volume level. We can
also hear the orchestra with excellent clarity.
Svetlanov fashions a deeply-felt introduction to ‘The
Mellow Wedding Bells’; the BBCSO strings excel here, producing
a rich sound. Elena Prokina is a passionate soloist. She sings
with a fair amount of vibrato but I don’t find it excessive,
at least not for this type of music. All the performers display
ardour at times in this movement but there’s also a fine
amount of tenderness. The scherzo - ‘The Loud Alarum Bells’
- is conducted with huge drive; can this really be the
work of an ailing man who would be dead within a fortnight?
Svetlanov galvanises his choir and orchestra who, thus challenged,
deliver a flamboyant performance. The music is impelled forward
in a thrilling, headlong fashion.
At the start of ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’ we hear
a doleful cor anglais threnody during a lugubrious orchestral
introduction. Sergei Leiferkus is a commanding, baleful vocal
presence and sings magnificently. In Svetlanov’s hands
the music broods. Like Leiferkus, the choir once more rises
to the occasion. It’s a very intense, very Russian-sounding
performance. The brief, poignant coda (from 9:54) exemplifies
the outstanding contribution throughout the whole work of the
BBC Symphony Orchestra. This is a tremendous, gripping performance
of The Bells. If there’s a better one in the catalogue
I should love to hear it.
The recorded sound in both performances is excellent. The Barbican
can be a problematic acoustic but it seems to me that the BBC
engineers did an excellent job in the Rachmaninov and the Prokofiev
score is reported well in the Royal Festival Hall. Both these
works require sound that has clarity and presence and that’s
what we get. Both performances are sung in Russian but, regrettably,
no texts or translations are provided; the space in the booklet
that advertises earlier issues in this series could have been
much more usefully employed for the provision of words.
This is a phenomenal disc! It shows Evgeny Svetlanov at his
incandescent, inspirational best. His sometimes driven style
of conducting could occasionally tip over into crudity but there’s
not the slightest trace of that in these performances though
everything is intense and dramatic - and rightly so. At his
best - as he is here - Svetlanov had few equals in Russian repertoire.
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