September 2004 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Alexander Nevsky - film score  
Music composed by Sergei Prokofiev
  Performed by the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Reconstructed from the original soundtrack and arranged by William D. Brohn
  Available on RCA Victor Red Seal 60867
Running time: 50.54
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alexander nevsky

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Eisenstein’s 1939 Stalinist propaganda epic Alexander Nevsky is a film more often talked about than actually seen—a fact to be counted in its favour when its many technical limitations are considered. Indeed, in comparison with Hollywood’s contemporary output (Gone with the Wind, Fantasia and The Wizard of Oz all come to mind), Nevsky does not hold up at well as a piece of filmmaking—although it’s only fair to mention that much of the blame must be laid at Stalin’s door for approving a rough cut of the film without realising that a whole reel was missing!

Fortunately the same cannot be said of Prokofiev’s music, thanks to the composer’s far-sighted decision to arrange his score into a rousing cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The Alexander Nevsky Cantata, Op.78 has deservedly taken its place in the mainstream repertoire, as a more weightier companion to Prokofiev’s even more popular concert suite from the film Lieutenant Kije. And its legacy continues to haunt Hollywood, at least in many films scored by a certain James Horner, whose career has seems to have been founded on reworking bits of Prokofiev’s music (plus some Shostakovich for variety) ad nauseam in everything from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan to Troy.

Recorded in 1993, this album was the first attempt to present in full Prokofiev’s original score for the movie. Orchestrator William D. Brohn went back to the poor quality soundtrack and, using the Cantata as a guide, reconstructed the music as it was first heard in the cinema. Actually, that’s not quite true, since for this recording an overture has been added and certain unlicensed changes have been made to the orchestration and scoring in places in order to smooth things out for the listener. So, it’s not really a faithful representation of the original score at all, but a compromise between the rough-and-ready film music and the polished Cantata. But at least it was recorded as the soundtrack for a re-release of the film, so we can be sure that fast tempos are true and each cue fits the action as it should.

The problem here is not the performance by the excellent St Petersburg forces guided by Temirkanov, nor the deliciously beefy sound courtesy of recording engineer Tony Faulkner. It might be a heresy to say this in a forum dedicated to the art of the original soundtrack, but Prokofiev’s Cantata simply makes this version redundant. For example, the most famous sequence, ‘The Battle on the Ice’, is split into six separate cues which only serve to accentuate the brilliance of the composer’s more compact concert-hall arrangement. There are bonuses here, it’s true, such as the terrifying percussion in ‘The Ice Breaks’ and the longer build-up to the battle itself as the Germanic hordes approach (James Horner’s favourite bit), but it remains likely that anyone used to the seamless flow of the Cantata will play this album for curiosity value only.

If you want an entirely satisfying musical experience of Prokofiev’s Nevsky music, then Neeme Jarvi’s recording on Chandos (pairing the Cantata with the Scythian Suite) or Claudio Abbado’s on Deutsche Grammophon (also featuring Lt. Kije) are both well worth discovering.

Mark Walker

** 2

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