Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 (1939) [38:25]
Zdravitsa (Hail to Stalin), Op. 85 (1939) [14:25]
L. Andreyeva (mezzo)
Yurlov State Academic Choir Capella of Russia
USSR State Academy Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1966 (Nevsky), 1980 (Zdravitsa). ADD
Sung texts not included.
MELODIYA MEL CD10 01831 [52:50]

One of my fondest musical memories is of an Alexander Nevsky played by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia as an accompaniment to Eisenstein’s film. It was an extraordinary evening, not least for hearing this score played – and sung – with such gusto. On disc I’ve long admired Claudio Abbado’s version on DG 447 419-2, Elena Obraztsova incomparable in the lament, and Neeme Järvi’s – with Linda Finnie - on Chandos CHAN 8584. Both have formidable weight and thrust – the latter especially – but what impresses most is how these recordings bring out the sheer sophistication and range of Prokofiev’s writing. Superficially, Nevsky may appear to be a patriotic tub-thumper, but that’s no reason to underplay or underestimate this terrific score.

Abbado and Järvi include worthwhile fillers – the Scythian Suite – while Svetlanov offers Hail to Stalin, Prokofiev’s cantata written – by invitation - for Uncle Joe’s 60th birthday. Hearing Svetlanov and ‘his’ orchestra in such repertoire is certainly an event, although I found him extremely variable in a collection of music by Rimsky-Korsakov (review). Yes, there are moments of illumination and excitement, but there’s roughness and routine as well, often exacerbated by agricultural-grade, Soviet-era sonics.

Svetlanov really emphasises the grind of life under the Mongolian yoke, his phrasing surprisingly ponderous. In mitigation his choir sings with a passion and edge that’s entirely apt. Only when one compares them with the LSO Chorus for Abbado does one realise there’s breadth and eloquence in this music too. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Svetlanov’s Nevsky is painted in bold primary colours, with all the subtlety of a Socialist-realist poster. The recording isn’t bad – the rasping brass are well caught – but the chorus is often too close for comfort.

Those drenching declamations at the start of ‘The Crusaders’ are as arresting as ever, but otherwise Svetlanov is much too aggressive and unyielding in this section. He seems to live for the moment as it were, missing the ebb and flow of this unfolding epic; by contrast, Abbado and Järvi build that narrative so well. The summoning bells and percussion in ‘Arise, ye Russian People’ are spikily present, the chorus suitably febrile, but Svetlanov pulls the music about in a somewhat cavalier fashion. That said, ‘The Battle on the Ice’ is the biggest let-down; after a marrow-chilling prelude the heat of combat is conveyed in some of the most chaotic choral singing I’ve heard in ages.

Really, this Nevsky becomes less appealing as the minutes tick by. Both Abbado and Järvi are splendidly incisive on the battlefield, the hurly-burly thrilling without ever sounding incoherent. Even Svetlanov’s orchestra is pushed beyond its limits here, and while there’s no obvious distortion the choral sound has a fatiguing glare at times. Goodness, this is the most doggedly literal, comic-book Nevsky I’ve ever encountered, Andreyeva’s querulous mezzo no match for the far-reaching nobility and grief of either Obraztsova or Finnie. And could the triumphal entry into Pskov be any less prosaic, with dull gongs and a battle-weary tread? The chorus adds a modicum of energy to the celebrations, but Svetlanov’s rivals are sans pareil in this great climax. Indeed, Järvi’s is probably the most spectacular finale on disc.

The less said about the filler the better. This is Prokofiev on autopilot – I did catch a glimpse of Romeo and Juliet from time to time – and I don’t sense the musicians are that engaged either. The 1980 recording is fuller and less strident, but that hardly compensates for such a shallow piece; of historical interest only. What a pity we couldn’t have had something more worthwhile as a filler, especially as there’s only 52 minutes of music on the disc anyway. Oh, and I do hate these Digipaks; regrettably, they’re becoming more commonplace these days.

This promises much, but fails to deliver.

Dan Morgan

This promises much, but fails to deliver.