United States Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff: Nadezhda Serdyuk (mezzo-soprano), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Bagwell (chorus conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 22.10.2015 (SSM)
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, Cantata, Op. 78
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Sergei Eisenstein, the director of the film Alexander Nevsky, for which Prokofiev wrote the music, was under tremendous pressure from the Russian propaganda office to finish a film meant to mobilize the Russian populace for the impending invasion by the Axis powers. He felt at the time that it would be “impossible to find and reproduce that wonderful inner synchronization of plastic and musical images, that is, to achieve that in which lies the secret of audio-visual impression….This is where the magician Sergei Prokofiev came to the rescue.”
Magician, he was, collaborating with the cinematic giant, Eisenstein, to produce what is arguably the greatest piece of background (foreground?) music ever written. Their collaborative relationship was one of true respect, trust and dedication to the film’s importance for their country’s survival. Any true lover of this masterpiece of both film and music can hear the music if silently viewing the film, and can visualize the images if hearing the music alone. I grew up listening to Fritz Reiner’s recording with the Chicago Symphony, and when I finally got to see the film, it was as if the music went from black and white to Technicolor.
Prokofiev knew he had outdone himself, and he later revised the music to make it more palatable. This mainly meant cutting some of the long sequences. The battle scenes, powerful as they are, go on for almost 30 minutes, and without the visual support would have weakened the tightness of the music.
The performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its new conductor, Andris Nelsons was a showpiece: raw and raucous, at times (“The Crusades in Psov” and “The Battle on the Ice”); languishing (”Song of Alexander Nevsky”); and poignant (“The Field of the Dead”). I don’t know Russian, but the chorus must have been trained well enough to be understood, as the Russians next to me smiled, laughed or repeated the words coming from the chorus. Nadezhda Serdyuk gave the poignant “Field of the Dead” the proper gravitas.
The Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances that followed the Prokofiev, not unexpectedly, was anticlimactic. The work is another showpiece, and Nelsons pushed it in both dynamics and tempo. The result was pleasantly bombastic, as I find much of Rachmaninoff.