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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op 78 (1938/9) [41:23]
Lieutenant KijÚ – Suite, Op 60 (1933/4) [18:26]
Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano)
Utah Symphony Chorus; University of Utah A Cappella Choir; University of Utah Chamber Choir
Utah Symphony/Thierry Fischer
rec. live, 18 & 19 November, 2016, Maurice Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. HDCD
English translations included

This disc usefully couples performances of two of Prokofiev’s most famous scores, both of which had their origins as incidental music for films.

Lieutenant KijÚ was a satirical story about a non-existent army officer, developed by the writer Yuri Tynayanov (1894-1943). The story was made into a film at the Belgoskino studios in Leningrad in 1933 and released the following year. The invitation to Prokofiev to compose the music led to his first venture into music for the movies. His original music was scored for small orchestral forces and quite a few of the numbers were quite short. Therefore, when he came to make a concert suite in 1934, he had a bit of work to do, expanding the orchestral forces and fashioning his music into five movements. The result was highly successful and so is the present performance led by Thierry Fischer. The piquant opening movement, ‘KijÚ’s Birth’, is notable for some nimble playing, especially from the Utah Symphony’s woodwinds. ‘Romance’ is nicely shaped and I liked the contributions of tenor saxophonist Daron Bradford. The cheeky music of ‘KijÚ’s Wedding’ is nicely pointed and the tuba ‘oompahs’ add a suitably amusing touch. In the concluding ‘KijÚ’s Funeral’ Prokofiev offers a kind of musical obituary by weaving in snippets from the four preceding movements. This is a very nicely done performance and I enjoyed it.

In 1938 a much more prestigious film commission came Prokofiev’s way when he was asked to write the music for the epic Alexander Nevsky, directed by the celebrated Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). The film depicts the exploits of Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) and specifically his role in repelling the invasion of Novgorod by the Teutonic Knights. The film’s theme was very patriotic though, as Paul Griffiths relates in his valuable notes, after it was released in 1938 it had to be withdrawn within a few months in the wake of the signing of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR. As soon as Germany broke that pact in 1941 the film was re-released and, needless to say, it caught the mood of the times. While the film was in cold storage Prokofiev refashioned his score into a concert cantata for mezzo, chorus and orchestra, thereby giving the music a life independent of the film.

The cantata is a vivid, theatrical score and in the right hands it certainly packs a punch. There are many fine recordings already in the catalogue, including a superb live account from Evgeny Svetlanov (review) and excellent studio recordings by Neeme Jńrvi and Claudio Abbado. This new version from Thierry Fischer has a lot going for it too, not least the vivid recorded sound.

The quality of the sound is immediately evident in ‘Russia under Mongolian Tyranny’ where the brooding atmosphere established by Fischer and his orchestra is emphasised by the wide-ranging recording. The sound has impact and genuine presence, offering a vivid aural picture of the orchestra. The Utah choirs make a strong showing in the delivery of their long phrases in ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’. Things really get cracking in ‘The Crusade in Pskov’ where the oppressive dissonance of Prokofiev’s music is strongly projected by the orchestra, reinforced eventually by the choir. The recording has power and clarity, maximising the impact of the performance.

The centrepiece of the score is the famous ‘Battle on the Ice’. Prokofiev’s music is so vividly imagined that you can visualise the action that it illustrates, even without the images of the film in front of your eyes. The opening, as dawn breaks over what will soon be the battlefield, is terrific here, the music pregnant with suspense: you can envision the two armies eyeing each other up. There’s looming menace as the horses bearing the Teutonic Knights begin to gallop towards their foes. Then battle is joined (4:20) and what a melee it is. Fischer’s choir and orchestra give a vivid, dramatic performance – the percussion and brass are terrific - and make the battle very exciting. The sorrowful hushed coda is very well done; one can imagine all too easily the battlefield littered with the corpses and the wounded. Alisa Kolosova is an affecting soloist in ‘The Field of the Dead’. She sings expressively and with rich tone. It’s good to report, too, that her words are clear. Finally, Prokofiev depicts the triumph as ‘Alexander enters Pskov’. The opening is as grand as the Mussorgsky/Ravel ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ and Fischer is suitably expansive in his approach. His choir is fervent and the orchestra plays powerfully. The jubilant quicker music is colourfully rendered and then the ending, replete with bells and gongs, achieves grandeur. There’s no applause – indeed, the Utah audience is commendably disciplined throughout both works – but I bet the big finish of Nevsky brought the house down at the concerts.

This is a highly enjoyable disc. The quality of the performances is very good indeed and the recording – by Soundmirror – is terrific. I mentioned three other recordings of Alexander Nevsky earlier in this review. I won’t be parted from any of them but I’m very happy to give this newcomer a place next to them on my shelves.

John Quinn

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