PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78. Pushkiniana (compiled and edited by Rozhdestvensky, 1962). Excerpts from Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, Ivan the Terrible. Music to Shakespeare's Hamlet, Op. 77.
Irina Gelahova, mezzo-soprano; Sanislavsky Chorus; Russian State Symphony Orch/Dmitry Yablonsky, cond.
NAXOS 8.555710 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:34

The best of this mixed bag offers thrills and chills recorded with astonishing vividness in Studio 5 of the Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House between May 28 and June 5, 2002. The fish-hook, however, is that it is a mixed bag, not only as recorded but as conducted, played and sung in the featured piece—the cantata Prokofiev assembled from his score for Alexander Nyevsky, Sergey Eisenstein’s oddly old-fashioned crowd (and Stalin) pleaser. To put what follows in context, I haven’t heard Gergiev’s recent controversial version with Kirov players and chorus. But I have heard a lot of Nyevsky performances during five decades of listening, and the one that still gives greatest pleasure as well as goosebumps is Fritz Reiner’s from 1959 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias, remastered three years ago in "24/96, UV22 Super CD Encoding" by Hsi-Ling Chang.

True, that version uses an English translation of the Russian text (but retains the ancient Latin sung by invading Knights of the Teutonic Order as they gallop in full armor onto the frozen surface of Lake Chud). Naxos' gifted young conductor, Dmitry Yablonsky, uses the original language, and in the somber opening sections before the Knights’ attack has both a chorus strong in male voices and a responsive orchestra, recorded in well-nigh perfect balance. Reiner’s “Crusaders in Pskov” and “Arise, ye Russian People” (sections 3 and 4) are slower yet more pointed dramatically. Yablonsky and his forces go out of control, however, in what sounds like a different microphone set-up for the climactic “Battle on the Ice.” Yablonsky does it in 12:16; Reiner in 13:37, but that 1:21 difference turns the tide of battle in Chicago’s favor. The Russian orchestra suddenly sounds chaotic, as if it were engaged in a battle wth arcade enemies rather than an invading force on horseback, the very weight of which, combined with the heat of battle, caused the ice to melt and swallow them. Reiner knew his battle scenario and possessed an orchestra of arguably singular power as well as virtuosity, honed over a period of five seasons.

Yablonsky never quite regains his equilibrium, unhelped by a hooty mezzo with Slavic vibrato in “The Field of Dead” (whereas Elias never sang more persuasively on discs). In 1959 Producer Richard Mohr and his engineering colleague, Lewis Layton, maintained a sonic perspective throughout—thus Nyevsky on par with their finest Reiner/Chicago recordings. But, having achieved this victory, BMG/RCA in Y2K tacked on (as in tacky) the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, although they had a Reiner/Chicago Lieutenant Kizéh Suite and plenty of other Russian music in their vaults.

At that same point on Naxos, Yablonsky turns to Pushkiniana, a 20-minute conflation of music Prokofiev composed for three films that never were made, assembled in 1962 as a seven- movement “suite” by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. It’s all fascinating to meet (if not consistently inspired), especially a patch that Prokofiev used in his Romeo and Juliet ballet. This is followed by “The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father” from music for Shakespeare’s tragedy, Op. 77 (one before Nyevsky), and as a rousing conclusion the Dance of the Oprichniki from Ivan the Terrible—terrifying music, terrifyingly played in the best sense, again in sound as full and ferocious as we heard at the start of Nyevsky an hour earlier. Can we hope that Yablonsky and these same forces will be encouraged by Naxos to record the 1961 cantata that Abram Stasevich created from the music for Parts 1 and 2 of Ivan? Muti’s 1978 version is gripping but sounds its age; Slatkin’s is less gripping and also sounds its Vox-era age; Gergiev made a version with the Rotterdam Phil that has no more “Russian” character than the London Philharmonia or Saint Louis Orchestras.

With this disc, you could program tracks 1-4, 8-13, 15 and 16. But try to find the “Living Stereo” of Reiner’s Nyevsky on 09026-63708 (and don’t settle for any version earlier than c 2000).

R.D. (July 2003)