Serge Prokofiev – Alexander Nevsky, Lieutenant Kijé, Scythian Suite
with Elena Obraztsova, mezzosoprano
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Alexander Nevsky)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Lieutenant Kijé, Scythian Suite)
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1996
Conductor Claudio Abbado has a particular affinity with the Russian repertoire. His interest for composers as Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky led to the outstanding rendition of their works and almost every recording that immortalize the performance of this or that masterpiece (I think in particular of Boris Godunov for the former and of the symphonies for the latter) is a treasure for every collector. When it comes to the Russian music of the 20th century, Prokofiev seems to be one of Abbado’s favourites. Mentioning incidentally the great performances of Peter and the Wolf and of the Piano concerto (with Martha Argerich), Abbado’s recording of Sergey Prokofiev’s cantata for mezzosoprano, chorus, and orchestra Alexander Nevsky is probably the most famous and indisputably one of the best available on the market.
Alexander Nevsky, a masterpiece drawn from the soundtrack of the homonymous, Soviet propaganda movie directed by Sergey Eisenstein in 1938, is only the first of the three works included in the present recording. The immediately following one is the equally famous Scythian Suite, which is usually recorded with Alexander Nevsky but dating from a different era, having been written in the last years of the Tsarist monarchy with The Rite of Spring and Stravinsky’s same goal in mind, that to scandalize the audience with a kind of music that has its roots in the Russian futurism.
The last work is closer to Alexander Nevsky both for the date of composition and for the purpose, as Lieutenant Kijé is another suite from a soundtrack, actually Prokofiev’s first attempt to write this knd of music and also the first commission from the Soviet Union after a long exile begun after the October Revolution.
Two things can happen when three works by the same composer are recoded together: or the conductor thinks of a guiding thread to stress the similarities between the works, or he can limit the unity to the composer’s name and offers three different points of view, one for each work. This last is exactly the case that is realized in this recording.
The first work, Alexander Nevsky, is the most intense one. As its text (and the movie, of course) tells the story of the resistance of the city of Novgorod against the invasion of the Crusaders, it is not surprising that Abbado has chosen to accentuate the dark colours of the first part, not only in the disquieting beginning that, with its crystal sounds, is already a prefiguration of the anxious waiting before the Battle on the Ice, but above all in The Crusaders in Pskov. The vividness of the orchestral colours and especially of the brass instruments in the leitmotiv of the Crusaders, together with the thunderous voices of the excellent London Symphony Chorus, conjure up the image of an imminent catastrophe and of oppression.
In contrast with this sombre picture, the chorus of the Russian people before the battle and the triumphal one at the end of the cantata are embellished with luminous colours that can be associated with pride and heroism. This feature may be surprising only in part as in this case the difficulty is not to find it out, explicit as it is, but it is far more complicated to find the right way to express it and to make it clear for the listener. Well, Abbado does not only make it clear, but he adds something more to make the choruses glorious expressions of something that remains implicit, but that is so meaningful to make them not mere expressions of resistance to the invaders (Arise, Ye Russian People) and of exultation (Alexander’s Entry into Pskov). Their conviction is exquisitely spiritual and therefore superior.
The last important aspect of Alexander Nevsky is the performance of In the Field of the Dead, where Abbado is joined by mezzosoprano Elena Obraztsova. Neither the dreadful representation of the Crusaders nor the bravery of the Russians equal the desolate and powerful picture that conductor and mezzosoprano are able to realize in this piece. Obraztsova’s voice is rich and beautiful, but expresses dismay, while Abbado creates a softened, evocative accompaniment.
The Scythian Suite is a completely different matter. It does not have the nuances of Alexander Nevsky nor its few passages of relaxation and poetry and Abbado conducts it with energy and firmness. Especially in the first two pieces, The Adoration of Veless and Ala and The Enemy of God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness, his nervous conduction conveys the idea that a primitive but invincible force is the engine of the music, a force that is less perceptible in the quieter, evocative Night but that comes back in The Glorious Departure of Lolly and The Sun’s Procession.
Lieutenant Kijé is (again) a completely different matter. This is an amusing, definitely lighter work that has nothing in common with the provocative style of the Scythian Suite and with the heroism of Alexander Nevsky – if you do not interpret its witty and caricatural martial tunes as the parody of the latter.
Seriousness is definitely not a word that suits Kijé: though the work opens with a sad tune, the piccolo immediately reveals its true spirit and the rest of the orchestra follows it with the same, deliberate intent. I personally think that Abbado has thought of Kijé’s Birth as something goliardic. The same happens, if not to the delicate Romance (but here too there is something ironic), in the sumptuous (maybe too much sumptuous) Kijé’s Wedding, in the Troika and its lively fanfare and finally in Kijé’s Burial that becomes, in Abbado’s intention, another mock heroic piece rather than a mournful one.
Alexander Nevsky alone is so rich and well performed that it would have been enough to make this an excellent recording, but fortunately Abbado did not rest on his laurels and added to it two other, equally worthy works, the Scythian Suite and Lieutenant Kijé, to complete a first-rate performance of Sergey Prokofiev’s masterpieces.