Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (CD review)

Also, Khachaturian: Violin Concerto. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Leonid Kogan, violin; Pierre Monteux, Boston Symphony Orchestra. RCA 09026-63708-2.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his cantata Alexander Nevsky for the soundtrack of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 motion picture of the same name. The film epic and the music commemorate the Russian repelling of a German invasion in the thirteenth century. In the tale, Prince Alexander Nevsky gathered an enormous army and met the enemy on the frozen ice of Lake Chud, where he dealt the Knights of the Teutonic Order a huge defeat. Today, people admire the film quite a lot, but I daresay even more folks know film's score better.

Eisenstein said of Prokofiev that he "...makes it possible for the screen to reveal not only the appearance and subjects of objects, but also, and particularly, their special inner structure...and forces the whole inflexible structure to blossom into the emotional fullness of orchestration." The movement titles say it all the better: "Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke," "Song About Alexander Nevsky," "The Crusaders in Pskov," "Arise, Ye Russian People," "The Battle on the Ice," "Field of the Dead," and "Alexander's Entry Into Pskov."

Fritz Reiner
The 1959 recording of the score by Fritz Reiner and his Chicago Symphony does full justice to the music, bringing out the anxiety of anticipation, the brutality of fighting, the heartache of loss, and the exhilaration of victory. Equally important, RCA's "Living Stereo" sound is entirely up to the task of conveying the nuances and explosiveness of the music. The hitch is that Andre Previn recorded an equally good account for EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972, and Warner still have the EMI disc in their catalogue, offering it at a very low price.

Here are some of the differences between the Reiner and Previn recordings: Reiner's interpretation is a tad more heartfelt, and RCA's sound is wider and clearer. Previn's performance is a shade quicker and more energetic, and EMI's sound is a bit warmer. On the loudest choral climaxes, the EMI tends to break up slightly more than the RCA. Additionally, Previn's chorus sings in the original Russian, while Reiner's forces sing in English.

Choice between the two may rest with their couplings. The EMI/Previn disc gives us a superb realization of Rachmaninov's The Bells, based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem; the RCA disc offers Khachaturian's Violin Concerto with Leonid Kogan on violin and the Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux, recorded in 1958. Sonically, the Khachaturian is not as smooth or comfortable as the Prokofiev, and while Monteux, Kogan, and company play exceedingly well, personally I have never cared overmuch for the Violin Concerto. So it's an easy choice for me to pick the EMI disc. , For you, however, it may be quite different, and Reiner's performance is very persuasive.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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