PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky; Lieutenant Kije Suite – Utah Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/ University of Utah A Capella Choir & Chamber Choir/ Thierry Fischer – Reference Recordings Fresh! Multichannel SACD Fr-735SACD, 60:06 *****:
Utah keeps on blazing with this new disc of famous Prokofiev film scores. I’ll wager that most people familiar with these works don’t even know about their celluloid beginnings. Lieutenant Kije was the first film he worked on, at a time when the medium was very new and unproven. The story itself is a wicked satire, and perhaps not even suited to such a nascent technology. And it’s not all that easy to follow. A basic summation (provided by Wikipedia) says “the film satirizes the pedantic absurdities of the rule of Emperor Paul I. His obsession with rigid drill, instant obedience and martinet discipline extends not only to his soldiers but also to his courtiers and even the servants who scrub the palace corridors. A slip of the pen by an army clerk when drawing up a list of officers for promotion, leads to the creation of a Lieutenant Kijé. Once the document is signed by the Emperor, Kijé takes on an existence of his own.” You can then imagine all the craziness that follows. Prokofiev’s music captures the mania in an exemplary fashion, yet when we listen today we enjoy the composer-fashioned suite rarely thinking about the satire that inspired it.
Alexander Nevsky is a little different in this regard. Sergei Eisenstein, in his first film as a newly-returned Soviet, and his first with sound, tackled the national hero in a depiction of the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat (1220–1263). In 1938, the fear of Hitlerian irritancy was quite manifest in the Soviet public, and this film triggered much anxiety. In fact, after the signing of the German-Russian non-aggression pact, it was withdrawn, only to be restored when Hitler threatened the country in 1941. The film itself is brilliant and artsy, and can hardly be divorced from Prokofiev’s music, redolent in the Russian romanticism of the time, as expressed by the few-years-earlier Romeo and Juliet. It was an intimate collaboration; much of the music was done according to Eisenstein’s direction, and much of the drama fashioned according to Prokofiev’s score. Yet, as with Lieutenant Kije, the composer realized that there would be limited life his work unless he tore the music from the film, and hence the now-prevalent cantata.
The Utah forces are superb in every way, with magnificent sound and solid contributions from the choruses. These scores are deserving of such sonic splendor, and one senses the enthusiasm among all involved. But the interpretations lack nothing either, and though I will probably hang on to my previous favorites, Ormandy for Lieutenant Kije, and the uniquely unusual Reiner Nevsky (in English at that), I have a feeling that a hankering for this music will inevitably lead to me pulling this one off the shelves.