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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
Reviewed in stereo

Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata and Lieutenant Kije Suite are arguably the most popular scores sourced in film music. Prokofiev wrote another work for film, Ivan the Terrible, which in various guises has also become quite popular. Having written only seven film scores in his career, Prokofiev's success in the genre is rather remarkable: Shostakovich, by comparison, wrote thirty-six film scores, with not one achieving any significant currency in the concert hall or on recording, whether in suites fashioned by his friend Lev Atovmian or in their original or excerpted forms. Copland, Vaughan Williams, and many other notable composers have also written for film but none with Prokofiev's success. To give you an idea of his reputation in the film world, on his 1938 visit to Hollywood Prokofiev was feted at a dinner and reception hosted by director Rouben Mamoulian and reportedly attended by then superstars Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Edward G. Robinson, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and, surprisingly, Arnold Schoenberg. At about this time Prokofiev was offered $10,000 a week to write Hollywood film scores, then an enormous sum, about three times what the average US worker would earn in a year! His wife Lina obtained a lease for an apartment but, in the end, Prokofiev turned down the offer, believing his greatest artistic inspiration came in his homeland. I can only say, what if...?

Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer was appointed music director of the Utah Symphony beginning with the 2009-10 season. He has since had several contract extensions and will conclude his tenure at the end of the 2021-22 season. He has held numerous other conducting posts, but none approaching the length of his Utah incumbency. In his discography, apart from music by Stravinsky, Saint-SaŰns and Mahler, he has largely been associated with works off the beaten path, especially by French and Swiss composers, including Jean Franšaix, Honegger, Poulenc and Frank Martin.

In this recording of Alexander Nevsky Fischer has several things going for him: the splendid playing of his very excellent Utah Symphony, the talented Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova who sings beautifully and with great dramatic instincts in The Field of the Dead, and the fine orchestral sonics provided by Reference Recordings. Further, Fischer seems to understand the music and its underlying drama pretty well.

He delivers an atmospheric, ominous-sounding Russia under Mongolian Tyranny, where brass and woodwinds turn in characterful playing. In the ensuing Song of Alexander Nevsky the choral forces sing most pleasingly, Fischer phrasing the music beautifully. In The Crusaders in Pskov everything goes reasonably well, from both the orchestra and choruses, but here and in The Battle on the Ice, one notices that while much detail can be heard from the orchestra, the singing is captured at a bit of a distance, leaving a slight imbalance in the sound. Arise, People of Russia is both played and sung with great spirit.

In the aforementioned No. 5, The Battle on the Ice, the choruses at the big climactic passages in the first half are nearly overwhelmed. Still, the performance by all parties involved in this, the longest of the seven movements, is rather strong, in the end quite exciting. As suggested, The Field the Dead is well sung by the soloist, but the orchestra plays convincingly too, making this among the very best accounts on disc. And in the closing number, Alexander Enters Pskov, the performances are strong again, but once more one wishes the choruses had somewhat greater presence in the sound field. The choral singing, by the way, is very fine throughout the work, though without sounding particularly Russian.

One additional factor here, of at least fifteen other recordings that I have of this cantata (plus four of the complete film score), this one is among the four most expansive efforts, along with Mata/Dallas (Dorian), Previn/LSO (EMI) and, surprisingly, Reiner/Chicago (RCA). That noted, Fischer and company do not sound particularly slow or lackluster in any way, as Previn can at times in both his recordings, his second being with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Telarc). Even in movements like The Battle on the Ice, at 13:46, Fischer makes the inner faster music driven and energetic, with the slower outer sections somewhat expansive but still effective. In the end, this is a very convincing Nevsky.

The Lieutenant Kije Suite is much lighter than Nevsky, not least because it was written for a comedy. Here, in the instrumental version of the work (an alternate one features a baritone soloist in two of the five movements), Fischer again draws fine playing from the Utah players. Kije's Birth is very spirited and atmospheric here, with splendid playing by the piccolo and brass. Romance has both a Russian and hypnotic character, which makes it most effective. Kije's Wedding and Troika are together a mixture of the playful and celebratory, and they have plenty of precision, color and exuberance here. The concluding Death of Kije, with its mock-mourning for the non-existent Kije, is just as convincingly rendered as the previous numbers. This is as fine an effort as Nevsky, and also features excellent sound reproduction.

Now for comparisons with competition ... (and also see Ralph Moore's excellent survey of the work's recordings). The better versions of Nevsky include Abbado/LSO (DG), Ormandy/Philadelphia (RCA), Mata/Dallas SO (Dorian), Gergiev/Mariinsky (Arthaus video) and the first Svetlanov/USSR SO (Melodiya)—Svetlanov's second with the BBC SO (ICA) is a live performance nearly as good. To me there has never been a totally satisfying Nevsky, but I lean now very slightly toward the first Svetlanov, though its mid-1960s sound is hardly state-of-the-art and its later reissue on a Le Chant du Monde CD featured a rather clownish denouement—a fade-out of the last chord, apparently inserted by some misguided party in the mastering process hoping to achieve an artistic payoff of sorts. This new Nevsky must be ranked among the finest efforts mentioned here.

As for Kije, the competition is just as thick. I have nearly as many Kije recordings as Nevsky ones, including the excellent Reiner/Chicago (RCA), Litton/Bergen Philharmonic (BIS), and Abbado/Chicago (DG). I think I might favor Litton over the others, mainly because his Kije is the vocal version and its baritone is the excellent Andrei Bondarenko. That said, this account on Reference Recordings is about as compelling as the best of the other orchestral versions. In sum, Prokofiev mavens and 20th century music enthusiasts will likely find this recording of both works strongly to their liking.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Ralph Moore

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