Gergiev has been working his way through recordings of Prokofiev, and after Ivan the Terrible in 1998 one might have expected Nevsky a little sooner. It’s arrived at last nonetheless, doubled up with the often dissonant and frequently violent Scythian Suite. This is sequenced first on the album, and the 4 movements make for a thunderous introduction to the real meat of the disc.
Prokofiev’s first collaboration with director Sergei Eisenstein has long been recognised as a landmark in film and film music. Release in 1939, it was an obvious allegory for a Russia on the brink of war, but told with such good-natured patriotic pride that the 13th century tale of Russia’s Grand Duke enthused audiences on its own terms. The sheer scale of much of the spectacle – especially the legendary "Battle on the Ice" – easily distracted from politicking anyway. Equally distracting was the grandiose score, rich with hymnal passages contrasted by clashing percussive marches.
Condensing the material into a 7-part cantata served to preserve the most effective sequences without over repetition of motifs. On a more practical level, it also ensured it would not only be the poor quality original soundtrack recording left to represent the work.
There is much to appreciate in the music both with and without the film. "The Crusaders in Pskov" benefits from the images of village innocents being overshadowed by Teutonic helms and the smoke from funeral pyres. The aforementioned "Battle on the Ice" similarly benefits from noting the dramatic action to which the piece frequently peaks to crescendo. Yet in this self-contained form, the music speaks enough for itself without the film. A testament to how well it has done this, is in how parts of the score have gone on to influence the film music industry ever since – for genres falling well outside the historical epic. As many film music fans are aware the Titanic Oscar-winning composer James Horner continues to pay homage to moments from this score.
Gergiev’s performance with the Kirov is superb. They’re bolstered by the wonderful Olga Borodina, who gives the finest rendition of "The Field of the Dead" that this reviewer has heard.