PROKOFIEV:  Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78.  Chicago Symphony Orch/Fritz Reiner, cond. with mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias.  KHACHATURIAN:  Violin Concerto.  Leonid Kogan, violinist/Boston Symphony Orch/Pierre Monteux, cond.
RCA LIVING STEREO 63708 (M) (ADD) 

Unless memory is playing tricks (as it has done rather a lot lately), this Nyevsky—which is how Russians pronounce the surname (and Aleksandr is how they spell the first name—was the first of only two Reiner recordings with the storied Symphony Chorus he brought Margaret Hillis from New York to recruit and direct in 1957. Exasperated by the unevenness of university choirs in the Chicago area, and the ingrained bad habits of amateur ones, he persuaded the orchestra's tight-fisted trustees to underwrite a semi-professional chorus, as George Szell had done the year before in Cleveland. But the President of the Board (who'd wanted Szell to be Rafael Kubelik's successor in 1953) decreed that Bruno Walter—by then a frequent guest and holy ghost—be given the honor of introducing the chorus in performances of Mozart's Requiem. How good the group became in just a short time, Reiner demonstrated in Stravinsky's Les noces, in Handel oratorios, in this Nyevsky, and in a Beethoven Ninth also recorded (but only after his massive myocardial infarction of October 1960, meaning it lacked the dangerous edge of earlier readings).

He insisted that Nyevsky be sung in English—a physically thrilling experience in concert. But the recording of March 1959 never sounded quite right on stereodisc, nor in its first CD transfer (1986, I think it was). Here, however, using "Weiss 24/96 technology and universally compatible UV22™ Super DC Recording,"  the sound opens out with a sonority that literally stuns, and a dynamic range taxed only by the climaxes in "The Battle on the Ice"—a problem inherited from Lewis Layton's original mastertape. One is reminded of the "Pines on the Appian Way" in RCA's Reiner/Chicago recording of 1960, which never revealed what Layton had captured on analog tape until John Pfeiffer's 1995 remastering on a "Living Stereo" CD.

The addition of the chorus, however, congested those climaxes in Part 5 of Nyevsky, and my CD copy had four quick "pops," rather like a vinyl stereodisc—unless, let me add, my current CD player failed to decode everything on the disc. I was bothered, too, by right-channel dumping, but don't have any prior issues for comparison. To achieve a realistic balance I needed to boost left-channel gain almost to the max on a vintage Mark Levinson preamp. But a credible replication of the concert-hall experience more than 40 years ago was the reward of tweaking. Throughout, choral diction is utterly clear for the first time, while bass response is as thrilling as the peal of brass and the crash-bang of percussion. If Reiner's Nyevsky on vinyl seemed slowish, his interpretive option has been vindicated four decades later! This is a visceral performance, a juggernaut, and when the Teutons gallop in force onto Lake Chud, clash with Nyevsky's troops, and then crash through the ice because of their heavy armor, the mind's eye sees more than Sergey Eisenstein's camera ever documented in the 1939 film scored by Prokofiev, from which he extracted this cantata.

I hadn't meant to slight the singing of Rosalind Elias, who—like the orchestra and chorus—comes into focus vocally for the first time since 1959: a beautiful performance. A later Nyevsky in Chicago was conducted by Claudio Abbado (who recorded it in London, however, again if memory hasn't betrayed me), but ReIner's was always, and is again, the benchmark.

For the first time I found myself liking the text in English—the CD equivalent of surtitles in the opera house—at the same time wishing something more substantial had been chosen to fill the disc. Leonid Kogan's playing is flat-out gorgeous—as a fiddler I preferred him live to David Oistrakh, in the same way I preferred Janos Starker's cello to Rostropovich's—but the concerto has about eight minutes of Armenian quasi-folk music, padded and sequenced to last 35. It reminded me afresh of Irving Kolodin's verdict, not just of this but of the composer's entire oeuvre: "Khachatawdrian."  Interesting, how lean the Boston Symphony of 1958 sounded under Pierre Monteux, and how chaste that city's hallowed Symphony Hall sounded to the same producer (Richard Mohr) and engineer (Layton), compared to Reiner's Chicago Symphony.

I know that Reiner's Lieutenant Kiz»h Suite has been digitally remastered in 20-bit whatever on a "Living Stereo" CD with Alan Hovhaness' Mysterious Mountain and Stravinsky's Divertimento from The Fairy's Kiss. But jeez, BMG, Khachatawdrian as a latterday discmate?

R.D. (Nov. 2000)