Alexander Nevsky in New York

Alexander Nevsky [film score adapted by William D. Brohn]

Meredith Arwady (mezzo-soprano)

New York Choral Artists

New York Philharmonic
Xian Zhang

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 19 October, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

The New York Philharmonic, led by Associate Conductor Xian Zhang, offered a rare, multi-media treat, performing Sergei Prokofiev’s score to Sergei Eisenstein’s film, “Alexander Nevsky”, as the film was shown on a large screen above and behind the orchestra, projected from a well-restored, but less than pristine, print. As seen and heard in Avery Fisher Hall, “Alexander Nevsky” is clearly one of the great achievements in film history, with Eisenstein‘s striking visual images and Prokofiev’s atmospheric score complementing each other brilliantly.

The film owes its creation to Stalin, who, after summoning both Eisenstein and Prokofiev back to Russia from long sojourns in the West, asked them to make this film, which depicts the 13th-century victory of Russian forces led by Alexander Nevsky, over the invading Knights of the Teutonic Order. Stalin intended the film to generate anti-German feeling, but in 1939, soon after the film‘s release, he signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and suppressed the film, only to re-release it when Germany invaded Russia in violation of the treaty.

Although this is among the greatest of all film scores, it took considerable effort some fifty years after the film’s original release to create the magnificent composition played by the Philharmonic. The film‘s original soundtrack had been recorded by a very small studio orchestra using less than optimal technology, and the composer‘s later transcription of the score as a cantata for chorus and full symphony orchestra was a condensation that eliminated duplicative passages and thus could not serve as an accompaniment to the film. In 1987, John Goberman, a producer of musical and operatic programmes for television, engaged William D. Brohn to create a full score that could be played to accompany the film, based upon the composer’s orchestration in the cantata. Brohn, best known as a Tony-Award winning orchestrator of Broadway musicals, restored the passages that Prokofiev had excluded from the cantata.

The film has two major plot-lines. The main one tells how Prince Alexander Nevsky mobilized the Russian people to attack and defeat the invading Teutonic Knights, routing them in a climactic battle on the ice of Lake Chudskoye. Most of Prokofiev’s score depicts these events. Interwoven with this story are the exploits of Nevsky’s two chief lieutenants, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, who are rivals for the hand of the same woman, Olga, who pledges to marry whichever of them proves the braver in battle.

Prokofiev’s score begins with a highly dramatic introduction, played as the film’s opening credits are shown, heavy with brass and percussion at first, then turning soft and lyrical, but at the same time suspenseful. The major musical episodes correspond to the central events of the main plot: the Teutons’ destruction of Pskov and the brutalizing of its defiant citizens; Nevsky’s mobilization of the populace for battle; the battle on the ice; and Nevsky’s triumphal return to Pskov.

Between the last two of these episodes is a scene – accompanied by a haunting mezzo-soprano solo, sung magnificently here by Meredith Arwady – in which Olga, bearing a torch, searches the battlefield for Vasili and Gavrilo, finding them both alive, but with Gavrilo seriously wounded. In the end, Gavrilo will wed Olga and Vasili pairs with Vasilisa, a maiden from Pskov who fought at his side in the battle.

One of the many musical highlights was the choral anthem, “Arise, People of Russia”, sung as the people join Nevsky to take up arms against the Germans. A stirring march calling the Russian people to arms is followed by a folk-like melody, sung to an accompaniment of strings and woodwinds, first by the altos and then the basses. Both themes repeat in the orchestra and chorus throughout the score and at its ending.

When the Teutonic Knights assemble, their liturgical chants, accompanied by organ, seem emotionally dull and colourless. The music thus plays almost as much a part as the film’s visual imagery in evoking revulsion of the German invaders. Another recurring element of the score is its use of eerie woodwind motifs to depict the desolation of the frozen wastes.

Unquestionably, the centrepiece of the film is ‘Battle on the Ice’, which is striking and powerful as both visual and musical elements combine to create unforgettable moments, as when Russian horsemen on dark horses pursue the white-robed knights across the ice whilst the Russian victory theme is played. And at the battle’s end, when the ice breaks, drowning many of the German knights, the drumbeats, cymbals and other percussion sounds are shocking and overpowering.

Most gloriously upbeat were the accompaniment to Nevsky’s entry into Pskov and the closing hymn, a warning to would-be invaders that “he who comes to us with a sword, shall die by the sword”, as those words are superimposed over the image of innumerable Russian soldiers.

Xian Zhang, the Philharmonic and the vocalists provided a depth and richness to the film that no recorded soundtrack could possibly match. This was a most memorable and, indeed, unforgettable evening.

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