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SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) War and Peace - opera in 13 scenes after the novel by Leo Tolstoy (1941-42) Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow conducted by Alexander Melik-Pashayev recorded Moscow 1961 BMG-Melodiya 74321 29350 2 CD1: 59:54 CD2:63:12 CD3: 63:15



In the summer of 1941 Prokofiev and his wife were living amidst the pine forests of Kratovo near Moscow. The news of the invasion of Russia by Germany came on 22 June and Prokofiev rushed over to the nearby house of Sergei Eisenstein to share and confirm the news. Rather like Vaughan Williams in England, Prokofiev wished to do his composerly duty for his country. He wrote some patriotic songs and a march but soon the circumstances brought to fruition an idea on which he had been brooding for some years - a massive operatic setting of Tolstoi's ‘War and Peace’.

He and various other composers and artists were transported to a colony at Nalchik in the Caucasus foothills. There he wrote his symphonic suite 1941 which was to form the basis for his film music for Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes. He also completed the first six scenes of the opera. The remaining seven were completed in Tbilisi, the Armenian capital. Tbilisi was therefore the backdrop for the composition of the scenes most directly reflecting war and nations in conflict. The Nalchik scenes capture the more idyllic moments in the opera.

Prokofiev's flair for stagework and human drama still goes largely unrecognised. As a composer he occupies a strange hinterland between the modern greats such as Britten and Shostakovich and the deeper background occupied by Miaskovsky, Bax and Klami to take a few names at random. Although his popular successes of the Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf have guaranteed him a profile much of his music is little known.

His operas have been recorded and broadcast but they have made little headway in the popular repertoire or the CD catalogue. In this sense he is perhaps like Janacek whose operas enjoy occasional performances but who has not yet been accepted in the sense that Puccini has been embraced by the majority of the listening public.

War and Peace is a vast canvas across which to spread an evening's opera. In fact the work is longer than this recording suggests. The main competition for the present set comes from the Rostropovich-conducted Erato set of the complete opera. This complete version plays for over four hours but let it be said immediately that the performance, while accomplished and occasionally emotionally impressive, is not in the same league as this Melodiya set. The Erato is, of course, in better sound and with a more refined orchestra.

However refinement and digital sound are not everything as the Armenian conductor, Melik-Pashayev and Melodiya's 1961 engineers soon demonstrate.

You have to be an ambitious composer to attempt a setting of War and Peace. Prokofiev tempered ambition with practicality concentrating on two storylines and the counterpoint between them. There is the story of Natasha and Andrei - a love story without a happy ending but with ecstatic contentment along the way. There is also the wide vista of history: two nations in conflict; the aggressor France; the invaded Russia; Napoleon against Kutuzov. The Russian Winter against the Gallic Summer. The triumph of nature over Napoleon contrasts with the denial of happiness for the attractive but too easily swayed Natasha.

The present recording is a classic and I recall hearing about it (though never hearing it) during the 1960s when I started to buy Gramophone. From then onwards it became a fixture, often seen in London's Colletts, Farringdons and Record Hunter, as an expensive Melodiya box (with that strangely off-putting 'fragrance' that decorated Russian import LPs in those days). In the early 1970s it was issued on an EMI-Melodiya boxed set.

I had better declare my interest now. I like the Russian orchestral sound and the ring of sung and spoken Russian language. One of these days the Melodiya recording of Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin: music and sonorous narration, will be reissued; a treat in store. There is something in the brashness and the poetry of performances (braying French horns included) and recordings on many Melodiya issues which I find irresistible. Other recordings often seem bland by comparison.

Melik-Pashayev here directs a performance which captures and articulates summer evenings, doomed innocence, callous exploitation, brazen patriotism, heroic triumph and wintry negation. He is aided by a practically ideal cast strongly dominated by Vishnevskaya, Arkhipova, Kibkalo and Petrov. The men fare better than the women.Vishnevskaya is in young voice but there are still moments (very few) when her character comes over as more mature than the ideal Natasha. Perhaps the young Maggie Teyte or Netania Davrath would have been even better suited to the role.

The first disc opens the work in much the same spirit as it closes: with a dense-toned choir strenuously hymning Russia's pain and threatening any aggressor. Track 2 opens with serene strings recalling the delightful love music from the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The tenor's meltingly Delian tone (echoes of Once I Passed Through a Populace City) is memorable. The theme of summer and love dominates the first four tracks.

In the great ball scene emotional striving meets opulent grandeur amongst dazzling lights. The ball plays out Natasha's triumph against delightful choral singing, the inconsequential society banter of the aristocracy and a choral paean of praise (entry of Tsar Alexander I).

Prokofiev is a master of orchestral detail. The score has many moments of vocal splendour but the glistening and ever active orchestral tissue is what continues to hold the attention. Listen for example to the extraordinary upward striking coups of the orchestra in track 8

In track 9 a deliciously grandiloquent waltz launches out over a typically oompah figure. A confidently forward trumpet adds a touch of flaming ardour. The waltz may well be known to you from the Waltz Suite. A Prokofiev waltz is never simple. It is over-arched with strata of passion and tragedy.

In scene 3 the touching Natasha theme returns in plaintive beauty. Do not miss the singing of 'ne mozet byt' again set off with plenty of teeming detail from the band. In the next two scenes the characters seem racked with passion and the slightly nervy intoxicated theme is charged with the potential for exploding into the grand moment. At 1.10 [track 16] Vishnevskakaya catches well the fervent and febrile passion. She acts with her voice: both gutsy and warmly sensual.

Disc 2 opens with scene 5 which is ushered in with a jerky theme like clockwork running down and evolves into a 'Dance of Life' theme. In fact the love story and society aspects of this opera often recall the psychological dimensions of Edvard Munch's paintings. The banter between Anatol and Dolokhov also comes across vividly and leaves us despising the exploitative Anatol who sees Natasha as his next conquest. The accompanying orchestral mosaic is very Sibelian.

Scene 6 returns us to Natasha. Her growing torment is hinted at by a wayward little theme which begins with some discipline and then decays into wildness. The blithely eager pizzicato work in track 3 (2:30) is worth sampling. Speaking of highlights not to be missed do listen to 'iskal v romanticeskoj ljubvi' from Vladimir Petrov. His portrayal of Pierre is in fully passion-drenched voice.

From scene 8 onwards the opera becomes increasingly preoccupied with national conflict. In track 10 Denisov’s stern iron-willed aria in defence of the Russian homeland is notably heroic. In Track 11 the Russian chorus vibrantly invokes warlike incitement which echoing contemporary events. We should not forget that the opera was written against the background of Russia's invasion by the Nazis. The words sung by the chorus seem more suitable to clanking Panzers than Napoleon's regiments: 'and in battle we’ll crush the iron regiments / The enemy’s dark tracks are everywhere.'

This music recalls the bloodier psalms of David and Havergal Brian’s Symphony No. 4, reeking with death, merciless slaughter and devastation. Some respite is offered by the return (track 12) of the pliant love theme from the summery nights of the earlier scenes.

Andrei Kibkalo is in honey-toned voice. The love theme segues into the concert waltz recollecting happy days with Natasha.This does not last long. The barbarity in the fanfares and in the huzzas of the troops as Kutuzov enters the scene at track 15 is impressive. This contrasts with a faintly absurd panoply of Rossinian rushed fanfares and fife and drum hornpipes as the various regiments parade at the gallop in front of Kutuzov (track 16).

Speaking of Kutuzov, Alexei Krivchenya has a commandingy burred and rollingly powerful voice and the close of scene eight is noble and fatalistic with waves of ripe fanfares from the trumpets. The age of the recording tells noticeably at this point with some distortion, but it is nevertheless glorious. Prokofiev did not find any valiant glory in battle. The acrid sourness of death and of young lives blotted out is what comes across here. No doubt Prokofiev was touched by the horrendous losses suffered by the Russians during the years 1941-2 as surely all Russian families were touched.

The last disc brings us to scene 10 where darkly threatening French horns come to the fore and shards of marching figures provide a backdrop for Lisitsian's Napoleon. His victories of earlier years refuse to repeat themselves and frustration afflicts him. The burning of Moscow is conveyed by massed choirs and in track 9 some of the most impressive orchestral music in the opera lights up the sky in an apocalypse of flame.

The delirium of the dying Bolkonsky and return of the rose blossoming love theme is made the more telling by the choir singing 'piti piti piti' and whispered recollections of the happy days long gone recalled by the ball theme. This is another highlight worth sampling.

The final tracks carry the drifting defeat of snow storms gripping the hearts of the defeated Mediterranean French soldiers. Track 13 uncannily conjures up the snapping and blinding snow in drifts and flurries as the wind howls and whistles. The next track mixes wailing and heroic shouts with whistles of dismay and heroic exultation - a powerful cocktail. The defeat of Napoleon's legions is complete and the great opera ends with a panegyric of victory is which the chorus's shouted hurrahs have no trace of reserve or embarrassment.

When this production was mounted (1959) those singing would have lived through the war years and the sense of victory (only 15 years earlier) would have been vividly recaptured.

The orchestral details are rich and rewarding but the precision of the massed singing voices (both men and women) is extremely impressive. Nothing is slurred or fogged. The final chorus in particular is extremely emotional with an intoxicating sense of journey’s-over confidence and a belief in the green hills of tomorrow stretching into the sun dappled distance. All in all this represents is a deeply moving experience.

The booklet is pleasingly designed in a rich pine green with a cover picture by Bilibin which in its commanding simplicity links with the art of the Finn, Akseli Gallen-Kalela whose artwork often features on the covers of Sibelius discs.

The libretto is in transliterated Russian, English, German and French. The English needs some attentive proof-reading.

The sound quality is clear with practically no hiss. The recording is in stereo but the dimension that really matters and to which there is the highest fidelity is the vibrant charge of the music - fully and faithfully captured.

Finally my only real complaint is that I wished that courage and state enterprise had produced a truly complete recording. This one lacks one hour of music by comparison with the Rostropovich Erato. By contrast however there is a intensity and identification with the musical and spiritual message that is only intermittently attained in the Erato. I have not heard the Valeri Gergiev Philips version although the only review I have seen was not complimentary.

A clear and cordial recommendation for this recording.


Rob Barnett

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - Yevgeny Kibkalo

Natasha Rostova - Galina Vishnevskaya

Pierre Bezukhov - Vladimir Petrov

Helene Bezukhova - Irina Arkhipova

Anatol Kuragin - Alexei Maslennikov

Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova - Yevgenia Verbitskaya

Field Marshal Kutuzov - Alexei Krivchenya

Napoleon - Pavel Lisitsian


Rob Barnett

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