, August 2012
The cantata which Prokofiev fashioned from his music for Eisenstein’s 1938 Film, Alexander Nevsky, may not contain his greatest music and may not be his most subtle score but it’s vivid, dramatic and powerful stuff. The Technicolour orchestration and exciting music might be thought to be right up Evgeny Svetlanov’s street and this 1988 concert recording proves that it was indeed so. He’s right on top of his game in this performance and so too are the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra.
The music leaps out of the loudspeakers right from the start. There’s lowering menace in ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’—Svetlanov racks up the tension superbly—and soon afterwards we reach the celebrated ‘Battle on the Ice’. This is bitingly dramatic. Svetlanov builds the music masterfully into a headlong charge. The battle, depicted through some razor-sharp Philharmonia playing, is frenetically exciting. This is visceral stuff yet Svetlanov avoids any suggestion of crudity. After the battle has finished the quiet end—right out of Romeo and Juliet—is delicately done.
‘The Field of the Dead’ brings us a reminder of the artistry of Alfreda Hodgson—and a reminder, too, of what a great loss was her tragically early death just four years later at the age of fifty-two. She sings with wonderfully rich tone and she manages to be deeply expressive without any excess. The concluding ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’ is joyful and exultant…With the Philharmonia Chorus in full-throated voice Svetlanov fashions a splendidly celebratory end to the work—no wonder he holds the final chord on for so long!
This tumultuous and idiomatically performance of Alexander Nevsky, superbly executed is tremendous stuff. Surely the disc can’t get any better?
Oh, yes, it can!
On a couple of occasions in the past when reviewing Rachmaninov performances I’ve expressed the hope that one day this 2002 Svetlanov performance of The Bells might make it onto disc. Now, ten years after the conductor’s death, prayers have been answered.
The performance starts auspiciously with bright, fresh orchestral playing in the opening to ‘The Silver Sleigh Bells’. The first choral entry is splendidly forthright and it’s soon clear that in Daniil Shtoda we have the right sort of voice for the tenor solo. He’s tremendously virile and clear and I thought his performance was superb. The choral singing is just as fine and, all in all, this is an opening of great impact. The BBC Symphony Chorus is well recorded and sounds excellent whether they’re singing full out or, as often in this piece, at a quieter volume level. We can also hear the orchestra with excellent clarity.
Svetlanov fashions a deeply-felt introduction to ‘The Mellow Wedding Bells’; the BBCSO strings excel here, producing a rich sound. Elena Prokina is a passionate soloist. She sings with a fair amount of vibrato but I don’t find it excessive, at least not for this type of music. All the performers display ardour at times in this movement but there’s also a fine amount of tenderness. The scherzo—‘The Loud Alarum Bells’—is conducted with huge drive; can this really be the work of an ailing man who would be dead within a fortnight? Svetlanov galvanises his choir and orchestra who, thus challenged, deliver a flamboyant performance. The music is impelled forward in a thrilling, headlong fashion.
At the start of ‘The Mournful Iron Bells’ we hear a doleful cor anglais threnody during a lugubrious orchestral introduction. Sergei Leiferkus is a commanding, baleful vocal presence and sings magnificently. In Svetlanov’s hands the music broods. Like Leiferkus, the choir once more rises to the occasion. It’s a very intense, very Russian-sounding performance. The brief, poignant coda (from 9:54) exemplifies the outstanding contribution throughout the whole work of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This is a tremendous, gripping performance of The Bells. If there’s a better one in the catalogue I should love to hear it.
The recorded sound in both performances is excellent. The Barbican can be a problematic acoustic but it seems to me that the BBC engineers did an excellent job in the Rachmaninov and the Prokofiev score is reported well in the Royal Festival Hall. Both these works require sound that has clarity and presence and that’s what we get.
This is a phenomenal disc! It shows Evgeny Svetlanov at his incandescent, inspirational best. At his best—as he is here—Svetlanov had few equals in Russian repertoire. © 2012 MusicWeb International © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review