Alexander Nevsky

“Alexander Nevsky”

Film directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein & D. I. Vassilev to a screenplay by Eisenstein & Peter A. Pavlenko, with cinematography by Edward Tisse and music by Sergei Prokofiev

Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky – Nikolai Cherkassov
Vassily Buslai – Nikolai Okhlopkov
Gavrilo Olexich – Andrei L. Abrikossov
Ignat, master armourer – D. N. Orlov
Pavsha, Governor of Pskov – V. Novikov
Domash, Nobleman of Novgorod – N. N. Arski
Amefa Timofeyevna, Mother of Buslai – V. O. Massalitinova
Olga, a Novgorod Girl – V. S. Ivasbeva
Vassilissa – A. S. Danilova
Master of the Teutonic Order – V. L. Ersbov
Tverdillo, Traitorous Mayor of Pskov – S. Blinnikov
Anani, a Monk – I. I. Lagutin
Bishop – L. A. Fenin
Black-robed Monk – N. A. Rogozbin

Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Xian Zhang

John Goberman – Producer
William D. Brohn – Music adaptation
Sonya Friedman – Subtitles
Peggy Serra – Music copying and preparation
Jon Sharpe – Technical supervision

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 2 March, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Alexander Nevsky (centre) with Vassily Buslai and Gavrilo OlexichOne normally encounters Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s film “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) in the concert-hall Cantata that the composer devised. So to hear the music as originally conceived and played live with the film projected onto a large screen above the orchestra is an opportunity not to be missed, especially when played by that great soundtrack band, the London Symphony Orchestra (long associated with the “Star Wars” films).

Considering that the film is seventy years old, it is remarkable how well the narrative, as well as its ability to shock (vivid images of a baby thrown into a fire), hold up, given that we are inundated with computer-generated special effects daily. The battle sequences could be said to have been only equalled by Laurence Olivier in his own patriotic celluloid-version of “Henry V” (1944) or David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962); it is stunning to see massed horses charged by foot soldiers. The old cliché “they don’t make ‘em like that any more” sprang to mind. Indeed, the production of ‘Nevsky’ is bound up with the politics of the USSR: Stalin was at the height of his powers but there was a threat from Nazi Germany.

A scene from 'Alexander Nevsky'Prince Alexander was a hero-warrior in thirteenth-century Russia who had defeated the Tartars and whose attention was now turning to invading Teutonic knights. The main purpose of Eisenstein’s film was to rouse the nation against the German threat. Some of the dialogue is blatant in this respect if powerful and persuasive under the threat of invasion. The humour in the film is remarkable too (who knew downtrodden Russians could be so funny?) with some mother-in-law-type jokes surrounding two handsome fellows after a beautiful girl.

The score itself, as written for the film, is padded out and parts are repeated. At her disposal the petite Xian Zhang had two televisions: one showing the film and the other displaying a large clock for purposes of co-ordinating live music and 70-year-old film. She triumphed in keeping good time: no dialogue was drowned-out by music and scene-changes perfectly matched. But … the soundtrack has speech and music combined so that when the LSO was playing the film’s sound had to be muted – the noise of battle were lost, which seemed a shame.

Xian ZhangRegardless, the playing itself was convincing and accompanied the story effectively, and began in ‘massive’ fashion with the large orchestra immediately grabbing one’s attention during the opening credits. It was surprising how well the power of the music’s force was continuously ratcheted up throughout this sequence. There are many expansive moments, too, ably matching by stunning scenes of great landscapes, though these may be well-painted backdrops! Shades of Shostakovich’s later ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, particularly in the haunting bassoon solos, sound very similar in their eerie nature. The London Symphony Chorus was in fine voice and was never threatened, in the louder passages, by the volume of the orchestra. The music was grim for the execution of traitors in the city of Pskov and genuinely unnerving when babies were being murdered: truly, the music of terror.

The set-piece chaos of ‘Battle on the Ice’ was accompanied by carefully crafted disordered music: lots of loud brass and percussion as you would expect. Nevsky’s triumphant entry into Pskov was solemn and moving. Amongst the victorious bells was humble music for the fallen heroes. Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany sang beautifully, and from the heart, a requiem for Olga searching for fallen men. The choral and orchestral music for the Teutonic Knights could be quite rousing if played quicker but the point is never to provoke those sorts of feelings – here tempos are set by the film, so consequently, and purposefully, it was not stirring.

Overall, to see such a magnificent film and hear Prokofiev’s great score is an opportunity one should not pass up. Highly recommended for the next time it comes around!

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