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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
St John’s Night on Bald Mountain (Original version, 1866-67) [13:51]
Songs and Dances of Death (1875-77), orch, 1983 Edison Denisov (1929-1996) [19:57]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op 78 (1938-39) [40:42]
Agunda Kulaeva (mezzo-soprano)
Vladislav Sulimsky (bass-baritone)
Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitri Kitajenko
rec. 2015, Studio Stolberger Straße, Köln (Night); Philharmonie, Köln (others)
Texts/translations not included
OEHMS OC459 [74:56]

Dmitri Kitajenko’s long association with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln has produced quite a discography, including a complete cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies. That set was warmly received by Gwyn Parry-Jones in 2008 (review). I suspect the recordings have been re-licenced since then; they are now available in a more recent Capriccio box (C7190). It’s good to see that he has now followed up those recording by setting down the cantata that Prokofiev fashioned from his music for Sergei Eisentein’s 1938 film about the great Russian warrior hero of medieval times, Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263). I think Alexander Nevsky is a tremendous score so I was keen to hear what Kitayekno would make of it.

I thought of using the thrilling Svetlanov performance on BBC Legends (review) but decided against it: Svetlanov’s is a live performance whereas so far as I know the Kitayekno performance was set down under studio conditions so one would not be comparing apples and apples. Instead my choice fell upon two other studio recordings. One is the 1987 Chandos version made by Neeme Järvi with the SNO Chorus and Scottish National Orchestra. The other is a recording made by Claudio Abbado with the LSO and the London Symphony Chorus for DG (447 419-2). I’m unsure of the exact recording date – it’s not given in the booklet but the recording carries a publication date of 1978 (Abbado was the LSO’s Principal Guest Conductor 1975-70 and its Principal Conductor 1979-1987). We’ve not reviewed the Abbado on MusicWeb International so far as I can see, but the Järvi was reissued a few years ago by Chandos and was reviewed then by Tony Haywood. I see that Dan Morgan wrote warmly of both Abbado and Järvi when he reviewed a 1966 Svetlanov recording of Alexander Nevsky.
When I first listened to the Kitajenko performance straight through I liked much of what I heard. He has the benefit of a modern digital recording that delivers both punch and detail. The orchestra plays very well for him and the choir makes a fine contribution too. Kitajenko’s interpretation has plenty of drama. However, it was an interesting experience later to listen to each movement successively in the three versions: I decided on a running order of Kitajenko, Järvi and Abbado and stuck to that throughout. I’m not going to report on each movement but will instead concentrate on the key points.

In ‘Russia under the Yoke of the Mongolians’ the Kitajenko reading is atmospheric and it’s also well played. However, think Järvi conveys even more a sense of bleak oppression – note the desolate oboe solo at 1:40. Abbado too is very threatening. Skipping forward to ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’, the louring menace of the Teutonic Knights comes across very well in the Kitajenko recording. The power of his performance is enhanced by the excellent OEHMS recording. That said, Järvi’s 30-year-old recording still packs a punch and he really gets the SNO to dig in; there’s genuine tension in the performance, to which the chorus also contributes manfully. Järvi’s performance has genuine menace about it and Prokofiev’s terrific orchestration really grabs the listener’s attention – listen to how well the Chandos engineers capture the bass drum. Mind you, the Abbado/DG recording still sounds pretty good even if it can’t quite match the weight and heft of the other two recordings. More importantly, Abbado’s conducting is terrific: he instils great drama into the music and by now it’s clear that he has the best orchestra – and choir – at his disposal.

‘The Battle on the Ice’ is the key movement in Alexander Nevsky; it really sorts out the men from the boys. I hasten to add that none of our present conductors could be categorised as “boys”; nonetheless it’s here that a process of sorting out began as my impressions of the respective performances hardened. Kitajenko’s opening is very tense. At 1:46 the Knights begin to move towards the Russian upstarts against an ominous ostinato. Kitajenko speeds up quite quickly; for him the horses break into an eager trot early on. He conducts excitingly and in his hands Prokofiev’s imaginative – and so characteristic – scoring registers strongly. By comparison Järvi generates a tangible sense of foreboding at the start of the movement: something bad is going to happen. Unlike Kitajenko he doesn’t accelerate as much or as soon in the ostinato section. As a result, the music has a far greater sense of menace. At 4:24 his choir forsakes singing and shouts; by comparison Kitajenko’s choir is much more circumspect. (Abbado’s Richard Hickox-trained London Symphony Chorus also shout, through the effect is not quite as graphic as on the Järvi disc.) Järvi’s depiction of the battle is very exciting; you get a greater sense of mortal combat than is the case with Kitajenko. Abbado is the quickest of the lot once the cavalry charge begins and I think his version of the battle is the best of all. It helps, no doubt, that the virtuoso LSO is on blistering form, offering fabulous, razor-sharp playing. Abbado’s swift speeds are exhilarating and he conveys the melee of the battle.

After the Battle comes ‘The Field of the Dead’. Kitajenko’s soloist is the Russian mezzo, Agunda Kulaeva. She sings very well indeed; her singing is expressive and committed. Linda Finnie (for Järvi) isn’t Russian but she sounds as if she is. I admired her performance a lot. The pick of a fine trio of mezzos, though, is Elena Obraztsova on the Abbado disc. She’s outstanding, singing with fervour yet always retaining poise.

After mourning their dead, the victorious Russians celebrate with ‘Alexander’s Procession into Pskov’. The opening is very grand in Kitajenko’s performance, the choir fervent and the percussion suggesting the pealing of Russian cathedral bells – the OEHMS recorded sound really comes into its own here. Then the performance of the patriotic celebrations has great zest and the grandeur returns in spades at the end: the effect is rather like Prokofiev meeting Mussorgsky passing through the ‘Great Gate of Pskov ‘. Järvi doesn’t quite match Kitajenko’s opening spectacle but the remainder of his account of the movement is very good. Abbado’s performance, though, is superb in every way even if the DG recording has to yield to OEHMS on sonic grounds; that’s not a surprise given that the DG sound must be about 40 years old. Among many things to relish in Abbado’s traversal of this movement is the terrific playing of the LSO woodwinds in the quick dance-like section. This finale seals the deal for me: all of the three recordings have their merits but even though Kitajenko has the best recorded sound, Abbado gets the Best in Show rosette.

Couplings may influence your choice. Both Abbado and Järvi’s performances come on all-Prokofiev discs. They each offer the Scythian Suite. Järvi adds a rarity in the shape of the Suite from The Steel Dance (1927). Abbado’s extra item is much better known: the Lieutenant Kijé Suite. In these suites Abbado is conducting the mighty Chicago Symphony and these performances, too, date from the late 1970s, I believe. Kitajenko offers a Mussorgsky coupling. Vladislav Sulimsky is an effective soloist in a good performance of Songs and Dances of Death. This is given in an orchestration by Edison Denisov. Kitajenko also offers St John’s Night on Bald Mountain, choosing the composer’s original score. That’s the authentic choice and by making it Kitajenko lets us hear Mussorgsky’s wild and unconventional vision. It may seem like heresy to say so but I prefer Rimsky’s version. It’s true that his version smooths off the deliberate rough edges of Mussorgsky’s score but I think Rimsky beneficially tautened what is a somewhat disorganised score. The present performance is a good one and the recording captures the scoring very well.

OEHMS earn a big black mark for their failure to provide any texts or translations. The label has form in this area I’m afraid but, frankly, it’s reprehensible to omit texts and translations from a full-price international release, especially when the words aren’t familiar. Both the Chandos and the DG Originals releases provide texts and translations.

John Quinn



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