Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (CD review)

Also, Scythian Suite. Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano; Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. Philips 289 473 600-2.

A big, brawny, red-blooded Russian performance of the Scythian Suite and a relatively restrained but stately reading of Alexander Nevsky get undermined by sonics that might peel plaster at forty feet. By the time it was over, the album had fairly thrilled and almost deafened me at the same time. A bit frustrating, you know?

But let me start at the beginning. In its plainness, the disc cover is among the least attractive I've seen in years, and the packaging offers no track information until you dig into the accompanying booklet. So the packaging has already annoyed me before I even start to listen to the disc. Then, the program begins with the rather noisy Scythian Suite, which looks as though it was Prokofiev's attempt in 1915 to out-Stravinsky Stravinsky. Scythian is a ballet in Prokofiev's early mode but with little of Stravinsky's (or Prokofiev's later) subtlety. Gergiev and his Kirov players do what they can with it, and, indeed, it comes off with the combination of reflection and ferocity that the score deserves, whether you like it or not.

Finally, by track five we get to the star of the show, Alexander Nevsky, the cantata for mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra that Prokofiev wrote for the 1939 film of the same name by Sergei Eisenstein. The movie and the music celebrate the deeds of an ancient, thirteenth-century Russian warrior, leader, and folk hero.

Valery Gergiev
The Nevsky music does credit to the legendary character with its colorful tone painting, its melting tragedy, and its ultimately uplifting spirit; and maestro Gergiev conveys most of it with a surprising nobility and control, if that's the kind of interpretation you're seeking. For me, Gergiev's rendition tends to lack the flair I was expecting (or hoping for). Still, if you're looking for a tamer, more deeply serious rendering of Prokofiev than usual, Gergiev may be your man.

But that sound. Philips recorded it live at the opening concert of the first Moscow Easter Festival, May 5, 2002, and maybe because they did it live did them in. While the stereo imaging is fine, if a bit close and constricted, the upper midrange and lower treble fairly toll the rafters, and with little compensating lower-octave response to offset it, it can be deadly. Unless your playback system is somewhat soft or dull to begin with, you may find yourself leaving the room with your ears ringing.

For years a direct rival to this disc has been a DG Originals release of the same material by Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony, which comes in at mid price. By comparison, Abbado's performance is marginally more sympathetic, more heartfelt, and more moving; and even better, the sound appears more naturally balanced, if somewhat artificially imaged. Nevertheless, if we were taking a vote, I'd definitely go with Abbado.


To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa