PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky Cantata Op. 78 [TrackList follows] – Chicago Sym. Orch. & Chorus/ Rosalind Elias, mezzo soloist/ Fritz Reiner – (avail. in various formats from HDTT) DVD-R with stereo 192K/24-bit audio HDDCCA325, 41:48 ****:
As with many of the HDTT hi-res discs, this one was transferred from a pre-recorded tape: an RCA 4-track open reel commercial tape, which was recorded in Chicago’s Symphony Hall in 1958 with Lewis Layton as the engineer and Richard Mohr as the producer for the RCA Living Stereo series. This one was never issued as a two or three-channel SACD in the Living Stereo series, so it’s great to have it in hi-res, with the detailed audiophile precision HDTT always carries out in transferring the tapes to digital.
The soundtrack music which Prokofiev created for the 1938 Russian film, working directly with director Sergei Eisenstein, may be the greatest film score ever composed. Stalin of course loved the film because it made the Roman Catholic Teutonic Knights the awful invaders and suggested to Germany that should they invade Russia they would be terribly sorry. (The costume person even patterned the Teutonic Knights’ tunics on the Ku Klux Klan in Griffith’s film.) The tumultuous “Battle on the Ice” has been the model for many film score composers since, such as John Williams. Prokofiev later re-did a shortened version of the score as a cantata, adding a louder chorus and a richer orchestration. There is an SACD on the Capriccio label of the original film music which has garnered good reviews. There are also two other excellent SACD versions of the Cantata, one on a Sony Classical non-hybrid SACD conducted by Thomas Schippers with the New York Philharmonic (SS 67711) and another reissued on a Mobile Fidelity SACD with Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Sym. Orch. and Chorus (probably one of the recordings from the Nickrenz-Aubort Vox series but Mo-Fi neglects to make any mention of them).
So the Fritz Reiner effort is up against some heavy competition in the hi-res format. His performance has the bite and thrust similar to most of his highly successful Chicago Symphony recordings for RCA Victor. In general it makes Leonard Slatkin’s version sound rather laid back, and the slower tempi that Slatkin often takes don’t help either. Much of the work is more exciting in Reiner’s version, though it lacks the surround of the Slatkin and Schippers SACDs. However, the Schippers recording is absolutely priceless and with excellent surround sonics, in spite of our having made the Mo-Fi SACD reissue one of our Multichannel Discs of the Month. In spite of the Fritz Reiner, and not just because it’s not multichannel, my vote of the three of the Cantata version goes to the Schippers Sony Classical SACD (even though you can’t listen to it in your car).
The Reiner version is unusual in that the vocal and choral parts are sung in English. The others are in Russian, but with the tumult (although the shouting of the chorus is less in the Schippers), I wasn’t really sure what language it was. The lyrics are printed in English in all except the HDTT transfer, and there is also no other music on the HDTT disc, altho the Slatkin includes Prokofiev”s Lt. Kijé Suite and the Schippers has a fine version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Ardent fans of this important work might want to own all three.
Anything is better than the awful sound on all the Soviet-era movies, plus the long soapbox speech which Alexander gives at the end of the film about how great Soviet Russia is.
TrackList:Russia under the Mongolian Yoke
Song about Alexander Nevsky
The Crusaders in Pskov
Arise, ye Russian people
The battle on the ice
Field of the dead
Alexander’s entry into Pskov