BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins – Alexander Nevsky – Eisenstein’s Film & Prokofiev’s Score

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 [sung in Russian with English surtitles]

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

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

William D. Brohn – Music adaptation

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 9 February, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Alexander Nevsky (centre) with Vassily Buslai and Gavrilo OlexichIt is almost five years since Sergei Eisenstein’s great film Alexander Nevsky was last shown in the Barbican Hall, with the LSO playing William D. Brohn’s imposing reconstruction of Prokofiev’s score, the same version now given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the exacting and ever-versatile Martyn Brabbins.

Alexander Nevsky (1938) arose out of a proposal by Josef Stalin soon after Sergei Prokofiev had returned in 1936 from a 20-year sojourn in the West. While the film was briefly withdrawn during the period of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin soon re-embraced it once Hitler had attacked Russia in June 1941. The Soviet leader, like Churchill vis-à-vis Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, understood the considerable propaganda value attaching to such a nationalistic film. Prince Alexander of Novgorod’s victory over the Teutonic Knights in 1242, like Henry V’s victory over the French, offered an extremely suitable vehicle. As in the British film, the strong nationalistic thrust is juxtaposed with brief comic and romantic episodes that offer respite from the weighty events depicted.

A scene from 'Alexander Nevsky'An almost symbiotic relationship between Eisenstein and Prokofiev created this work, the magnificent score of which was absolutely essential to its success. Here the music initially seemed slow to catch fire, not helped by a somewhat underpowered men’s chorus. The piece demands a deeply sonorous Russian-style sound, and while the distaff contribution was suitably expressive, a more ardent one from the men would have lifted the performance on to a higher plane. However, come the scenes of the Teutons’ devastation of Pskov and Alexander’s agreement to command the Russian riposte at Novgorod, everything took fire, the BBC Symphony Orchestra making a stunning impact in ‘The Battle on the Ice’.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Photograph: Gerald PlaceVisually, the battle scenes – stylised as they are out of budgetary considerations – are virtuosic in a theatrical way, although some might feel them unduly protracted. But in the scene where Olga searches the battlefield for her pair of combating suitors, the rich-toned Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a tower of strength, projecting her part, vocally and dramatically, to perfection.

The film was shown on a large screen set above the orchestra and chorus. The solid blacks and whites of Eisenstein’s film seemed curiously muted in the images displayed. Anyone who has seen a decent restoration of the original will surely have felt the disparity. While the superb playing of the BBCSO vividly conveyed the wide spectrum of moods, an argument can be made that Prokofiev’s original score for a small ensemble, with individual instruments closely recorded for the film’s soundtrack, delivers a grittier and more trenchant impact. A currently available DVD of the film confirms that view, and it also offers a better picture quality.

Brabbins achieved well-nigh-perfect coordination between the film and the accompaniment, but the too-long pauses between sections – obviously outside his control – served to slightly stall the film’s natural flow, and the acoustic disparity between the orchestra and the vocal soundtrack elements was slightly disturbing.

All in all, though, a thrilling experience, especially for anyone seeing this masterpiece of cinema for the first time.

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