Prom 31 – Alexander Nevsky

Strauss
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24
Mahler
Rückert-Lieder
Prokofiev
Alexander Nevsky – Cantata, Op.78

Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano)

Detlef Roth (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir
Crouch End Festival Chorus

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 11 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

All credit to one conductor, two soloists, some 100 orchestral players and over 230 choral-singers for performing in that great heat, in formal wear.

On this night, Germany and Austria lost. Russia won.

The ’death-bed’ opening of Death and Transfiguration was spellbinding, though – hushed, luscious and throbbing mildly. This section was phrased surely, carefully and lightly – not common in Strauss performances.

Thereafter we went into ugly imbalance. Blaring brass obliterated the strings. Had extreme heat driven players to let brass instruments rip and string sound to lessen? Yet the string playing looked impassioned enough – smothered by the Albert Hall’s acoustics, maybe? Did Gatti let orchestral balance slip?

Whatever the cause, I heard little phrasing thereafter – and certainly nothing lush. The performance became a raucous scuffling, with occasional balm from tranquil woodwind and strings. The brief closing quietude was redemption, though. (Germany lost.)

Detlef Roth’s CV bursts with news of operatic roles. That surprises me greatly. His voice is small – incapable of ringing out in the Albert Hall, as I remember Richard Lewis’s doing. Consequently, Gatti and the RPO had to walk on eggshells, diminishing Mahler’s precise, wiry inspiration. Had their playing been any more robust – however hushed – we’d not have heard Roth at all.

His voice is pleasing indeed. It sits richly and smoothly in his throat – and he phrases with scrupulous, civilised care, though rather stiffly. Honestly, I would have preferred to hear Roth singing these songs in the Wigmore Hall, with piano.(Austria lost.)

The Alexander Nevsky cantata (from film-score) was splendid. There are more subtle ways of playing the piece – more ’musical’, maybe. But in the Albert Hall this night, the performance made its mark. It was powerful, simple, loud and exciting. The audience loved it. So did I.

Whether dangerous or exuberant, menacing or triumphant, we were caught up in huge sounds that matched Eisenstein’s visual flamboyance. The drums thundered, the strings soared, the brass brayed and blasted, and a phalanx of voices saw off the RAH echo.

Most thrilling of all, I’d say, was the sheer Russian-ness of the occasion. We heard unfamiliar sounds – cavernous thwacks against huge, side-facing drums (booty from the Mongol hordes?) and shrill, savage clacks from slats of strange wood. More: the orchestra sounded Russian. More still: this huge two-choir choir (English both) boomed out Russia’s woes and triumphs in all the richness and roundness of the full Russian voice. Finally, in lament for the grizzly end to this heroic, historical mess, was the powerful, velvet, unmistakably Russian mezzo, Ekaterina Gubanova – large and imperious in physique and voice, her entrance and exit a richly dramatic, goddess-like visitation in its own right. (Russia won.)



  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 15 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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