RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
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 (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
*Alfreda Hodgson (mezzo); *Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
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 (ICAC 5007).
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.
This is a phenomenal disc! It shows Evgeny Svetlanov at his incandescent, inspirational best.