From the President – Summer 2010 #6

Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev

Dear Colleagues,

I am more than a little later in getting this weeks major work ready for sharing, so this will probably be brief at best; nevertheless I am hopeful that you will take notice of this masterful work for orchestra and chorus.

I am always surprised when I mention this piece to musicians, as many have not heard of it before. It is a wonderful, epic cantata that takes a large orchestra and chorus to perform; I imagine it is a bit of an undertaking. The genesis was the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein asking Prokofiev to compose music for his film “Alexander Nevsky;” later he substantially reworked the material so that it would stand on its’ own as an independent concert work. The subject is a medieval hero, the Grand Duke Alexander of Novgorod, who in 1240 had defeated a Swedish army in a battle on the river Neva. Two years later he defeated a large force of invading German knights in a battle on the frozen surface of Lake Chudskoye. This is, in a nutshell, the background for this incredible choral/orchestral masterwork. This piece is chock full of melodic ideas and transformations of those ideas. I was lucky enough many years ago to also get a copy of Eisenstein’s film, and it was great fun and very informative to see the black and white film with the score as Prokofiev had written it, and than to compare to the cantata that I know.

This is a seven movement work taking some 40 minutes to perform. It is written for mezzo-soprano solo, mixed chorus and orchestra. A very brief synopsis follows:

Jose Serebrier, Conductor, on the Cantata

1) Russia Beneath the Yoke of the Mongols

This is a purely instrumental movement, setting a scene of desolation after battle. It is filled with lament and a sense of loss. It is haunting.

2) Song About Alexander Nevsky

This is a tranquil lake scene with Alexander and friends fishing. The Chorus enters for the first time celebrating Alexanders victory over the Swedes two years earlier.

3) The Crusaders in Pskov

The town has fallen to the invading Germans; the Germans build a pyre and commence to throw citizens, children and babies in the fire. They execute the leading citizens of the town while the crusader’s priests chant in the background.

4) Arise, People of Russia

The citizens of Novgorod prepare to defend the Motherland.

5) The Battle On The Ice

This is the longest movement in the cantate…some 15 minutes in duration, and is considered one of Prokofiev’s finest achievements. It is virtually impossible to describe this section, when the battle is plotted and executed. It is April, the lake is still frozen. The townspeople wait in the bitter cold for the crusaders advance. One can hear them singing their battle chant as they move forward. It is high drama and high artistic achievement in this movement.

6) The Field of the Dead

When I first heard this movement I cried, and have every time since then. Night is falling, and many Russians lie dead or wounded on the ice. A young woman is heard singing of her search for her brave lovers. She has vowed to marry whichever of the two men has proven the bravest in battle. Both are found, injured but alive. She helps them off the field. It is difficult to believe that such deep sadness can be portrayed with such emotion; THIS is one of Prokofiev’s best moments in my opinion!

7) Alexander’s Entry into Pskov Includes “Field of the Dead”

The victory is celebrated as the troops return! Weddings are arranged, the dead are mourned and the captives are punished. This is great choral singing at its most dramatic!

I have three CD’s of this selection that I enjoy listening to. The first one, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Andre Previn, with Christine Cairns as the mezzo and the Los Angeles Master Chorale under John Currie, is an exciting rendition of this work on the Telarc label CD-80143. It is paired with the Lieutenant Kije Suite. The next one I have is the Cleveland Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly with Irina Arkhipova as the mezzo and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus under Robert Page (London 410-164-2). For sheer excitement, orchestral sound and a kind of “living on the edge” performance, I recommend this one. I also enjoy the solo…it “sounds” very Russian to me! But I can’t help but be partial to my Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus recording under Robert Shaw. Although much less “living on the edge,” his attention to rhythmic detail and integrity give this performance a power and drive that is not matched by the other recordings I have mentioned.


Frank Whitcomb

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