Quincena Musical Hosts a Splendid Performance of Alexander Nevsky

SpainSpain Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (excerpts), Alexander Nevsky: St. Petersburg Philarmonic Orchestra, Orfeón Donostiarra, Yuri Temirkanov (conductor), Kursaal Auditorium, San Sebastian, Spain, 18.8.2015 (JMI)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (excerpts), Alexander Nevsky

Soloist: Ekaterina Gubanova

This year the Quincena Musical offered two concerts by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under Yuri Temirkanov, its music director since 1988. The second of these concerts included this Prokofiev cantata, which was brilliantly performed by all concerned: the orchestra and its conductor as well as the soloist and chorus.

Alexander Nevsky, the Russian medieval hero, was largely responsible for the independence of his country, having repelled both Swedish and Teutonic invasions. In the 13th century the Pope proclaimed a papal bull to fight the Orthodox church, and Sweden joined in with fervour, invading Russia from the north. They were defeated at the Neva River by the Russians, led by Prince Alexander; the name Nevsky (“of Neva”) derives from that battle. Shortly after, and based upon the same papal bull, there was a new invasion by the Teutonic Knights, who were defeated by Nevsky and the Russians at Lake Peipus in the Battle on the Ice. Three centuries after his death, the Russian Orthodox Church raised him to sainthood, and we could correctly refer to Saint Alexander Nevsky.

His exploits were the basis for Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, which premiered in 1938, and the soundtrack was composed by the young Sergei Prokofiev. The movie was a great success: we must not forget that it is an eminently patriotic film released at a time when the threat from Nazi Germany was a fact. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact was signed in the summer of 1939, the film was withdrawn in Russia on Stalin’s order. It returned to theaters as a great patriotic film after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

 The Prokofiev soundtrack was a huge success. It was even played in some movie houses with orchestra and chorus while the film was projected. Prokofiev finally adapted the soundtrack and it became a cantata in seven movements; it is this cantata that we heard in San Sebastian. There’s no question that this renowned work has a pronounced patriotic feeling. The chorus sings in Russian, except in movements 3 and 5 when they sing in Latin, representing the Teutonic invaders. The sixth movement is sung by a mezzo soprano mourning the death of her loved ones in the ice battle on Lake Peipus.

This concert featured some great performers in the cantata, beginning with Yuri Temirkanov, who at 77 shows a security and extraordinary energy. I remember the first time I saw him conducting in a visit of the then-called Kirov Theatre, which is now known as the Mariinsky Theatre. I found Mr. Temirkanov to be an outstanding conductor, and that impression has been repeated every time I’ve seen him. This concert was no exception to the rule. If something stands out above all else here, it would be his complete authority over all the forces at his command. He did not need any grand gesture to get the best out of his musicians. Under his baton – rather, his hands – was the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and they once again proved that no other orchestra is able to sound like them in Russian music. It reminded me very much of what we’ve heard from Valery Gergiev (coincidentally, Temirkanov’s successor as music director of the Mariinsky) so many times with his orchestra. There was also a terrific performance from Orfeón Donostiarra, probably the best choir in Spain.

Finally, mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova sang with emotion and a superb voice in the sixth movement of the cantata. It was a luxury to have her for such a brief part.

In the first half of the concert, Yuri Temirkanov offered Suites 1 and 2 from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, and it was truly an exceptional interpretation.

José M. Irurzun

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