Prokofiev and Shostakovich under Stalin – Alexander Nevsky (11 March)

Alexander Nevsky – complete film music, performed live to a screening of Eisenstein’s 1938 film

Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Brighton Festival Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Film credits:

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

Screenplay: Sergei Eisenstein and Peter Pavlenko
Photography: Edward Tisse
Music: Serge Prokofiev
Direction: Sergei Eisenstein and D I Vassillev

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 11 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The first Royal Festival Hall concert of this ambitious joint festival between the Philharmonia Orchestra and the South Bank to commemorate the 50th-anniversary of the death of Prokofiev (ironically on the same day – 5 March 1953 – as Stalin died), featured Prokofiev’s music to Eisenstein’s epic film Alexander Nevsky. It was given in its original cinematic context rather than in the more usual cantata form, which Prokofiev had later extracted from the complete score.

There was a distinct buzz in the auditorium – sold out in advance – and the musical performance fully matched both the power of Prokofiev’s musical invention, and the epic nature of Eisenstein’s film. Live music to a screening of a film has become something of a party piece in concert halls. Indeed, the London Philharmonic now make a feature of it twice a year, with Carl Davis conducting his own scores to silent films (King Vidor’s Show People on 12 April should not be missed), and many will remember the multiple performances Ashkenazy himself conducted of Alexander Nevsky (with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) as well as Temirkanov, who – with the St Petersburg Philharmonic – went on to re-record Prokofiev’s score for a reissue of the film, as the original soundtrack did not fare as well as Eisenstein’s images (the print used at this performance was magnificent and belied the film’s 65 year age).

And yes, the film still has the power to move. Watching it we can understand how effective it was as a propaganda tool for the Soviets, with the rise of Nazism to the west, to see a film where the Russian hero plans the defeat of the invading Teutons and wins (not this time with the oncoming winter, which had defeated Napoleon in 1812, but with the breaking of ice, as in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). To modern sensibilities the style often borders on melodrama, and the screenplay is somewhat stilted, but the technical prowess of much of Eisenstein’s imagination, let alone the huge numbers he utilised in the battle scenes (shades of Zulu here) is hugely impressive. We perhaps forget that great story-telling has always included flashes of humour side-by-side with tragedy, so it comes as a surprise that so many of the characters are not just ciphers.

Here we have two Russians – Buslai and Gavrilo – vying for the hand in marriage of beautiful Olga. She can’t decide between them and suggests – when they go to war – the decision will be made for her. The comic antics of these two (just the same as in the latest part of The Lord of the Rings between dwarf Gimli, elf Legolas and man Aragorn) continue through the famous battle scene on the ice. This extended scene is quite extraordinary with the camera placed right in the middle of battle (sometimes even moving) and while the actual combat lacks a certain amount of realism (no blood and the axes never actually seem to cut; instead opponents are bludgeoned to death by them!) one can see where the likes of Peckinpah and Spielberg learned how to shoot battles.

The comic interludes of Buslai and Gavrilo (rivals even in battle) make the battle’s aftermath even more poignant as Olga, by torchlight, comes to find them. Here too is Prokofiev’s emotional heart – the dark-toned elegy to the dead, sung with great sensitivity by Lilli Paasikivi.

Of course, Prokofiev’s is a classic score, and the Philharmonia grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and played it with as much force as the composer could have wanted. If the Brighton Festival Chorus was, at times, a little underpowered in comparison, the singers were in less than idea circumstances, limited to being placed either side of the screen in the choir and lit at a low level (so as not to detract from the screening). Ashkenazy kept a tight rein on all his forces, with a big clock immediately in front of him which, albeit in a rather surreal way, presumably kept him in touch with the immutable timings of each scene. In fact, there is not much additional music in the film over what Prokofiev utilised in his cantata – a couple of scenes when Pskov’s or Novgorod’s bells were ringing aside – and for about half the film there is no music at all, at which points the sound of the original film cut back in for the dialogue, which Prokofiev’s music rarely underpins.

One final point is to compliment the excellent programme – the whole festival appearing in one substantial 48-page programme, with David Nice (whose first part of a two-volume Prokofiev biography is published this month by Yale) contributing learned but immensely readable notes throughout. With reference to Nevsky, full film credits were not included.For those, like me, who are intrigued by the film’s makers and actors, I include a complete list.

The Philharmonia contributes three further concerts (including, on 20 March, more film excerpts with live music by both Prokofiev and Shostakovich) while chamber, piano and song recitals grace the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Given that our understanding about both Prokofiev and Shostakovich has increased since the Prokofiev birth-centenary 12 years ago, mainly because the Soviet regime has crumbled, there is much new insight being presented in this festival.While the music in its own right is worth hearing, the context in which the festival places the works means that the sum is so much greater than the constituent parts. I urge you to catch as much of it as you possibly can.

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