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I bought this primary for the Lieutenant Kije and must admit that I got a little disappointed. It's a great production/sound recording, but I definitely find that the cheer performance lacks some kind of dedication. Just one evidently clear thing which annoys me - take the beginning of the first movement: beautiful start with the trumpet followed by the flute, snare drum, strings... but when the horn section enters the tempo speeds up in an 'uncontrolled manner' and that doesn't sit right. Likewise many of the solo efforts sounds a bit like "just playing through". Compared to the Fritz Reiner version, where you can hear that there has been worked a lot with this lively, heartfelt and so fantastic structured composition from Prokofiev's hand, it feels like that you are missing the essential core of the music.
Claudio Abbado is absolutely tremendous with his conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra; the sheer force and many nuances of Sergei Prokofiev's Op.78 Cantata "Alexander Nevsky" is superbly delivered. Both Elena Obraztsova (mezzo-soprano) and the London Symphony Chorus are simply exquisite. The couplings of the Op.20 "Scythian" Suite and the Op.60 "Lieutenant Kije" is a pure delight; with Claudio Abbado conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. All of Prokofiev's quirks here, both melodic and harmonic, are eloquently displayed with great intelligence and sensitivity. Recorded at Watford, Town Hall in June 1979 and Chicago, Orchestra Hall in February 1977; all sound-levels and environments match perfectly. The well balanced digitally remastered analogue sound-reproduction is from Deutsche-Grammophon's top draw.
The originals of these performances date from 1978 and 1980, the remastering having been done in 1995. It will come as no great surprise to anyone that DG have done the job very well, something that is apparent from the very first note of Nevsky. This is a great sonorous chord, magnificently scored and magnificently reproduced for us here. As far as the recording goes all the way through, I found myself ticking off the pluses. The enunciation of the LSO chorus is admirably clear: not a hint of distortion in the cacophonies featured in The Battle on the Ice or (slightly less so) at various points in the Scythian Suite: the distant trumpet in Kije may or not be too distant for your taste but it is very clear; and the cornet that gets the famous tune for Kije's wedding (first cousin to Peter's tune in Peter and the Wolf) has the right brashness to it. Is the solo voice in The Field of the Dead slightly backward? Debatable again. This may well have been intended as realistic concert-hall balance rather than the forward in-your-ear engineering that was so popular as lately as the 70's.
How one is going to rate the performances will also depend on a few basic assumptions - as usual, I guess. For instance, do you stress over the issue of authentic Russian style? I can't say that I do, one of my main reasons being that authentic national styles do not stay authentic indefinitely, but develop and change over the decades. If nobody had told me who the artists were here I would certainly have known that I was not listening to Mravinsky and the Leningrad Phil. On the other hand, Gergiev and the Kirov these days do not sound much like Mravinsky either, indeed it is quite arguable that they sound more like Abbado and his western bands. If the music is good enough and the interpreters are good enough it will be a matter of the various cultures shedding different lights on the music, much as sculpture or architecture can be viewed in different lights. I actually believe that there is a danger in Abbado's training, and the danger is that it can all turn out too smoothed-over and homogenised. The risk is not that some new and foreign style is foisted on the music but that there can come to be a generalised one-style-fits-all. Anyway, this slight worry stayed at the back of my mind in listening to this disc, and I am not seriously in doubt of the 5-star rating.
The performances are thoroughly recommendable, particularly to newcomers to this music. The real masterpiece is the great cantata Alexander Nevsky, and as I have said already you will be given the right impression from note one. The only real question mark in my mind here is the mezzo-soprano soloist. She sings her sad song most affectingly and expressively, but this is not my idea of a great voice, and this is my idea of a little too much vibrato. I don't really have a clear opinion regarding how `highlighted' this solo should be, but what was obtruding itself on my thoughts was the solo in Brahms's Requiem as sung on the Tennstedt set by Jessye Norman. I like to think that this is not trying to rival that, because it would be no contest if it were.
The Scythian Suite goes just fine for me. This started life as a ballet score, reminiscent quite often of the Rite of Spring, which it may have been trying to emulate. In particular I like the tempo chosen for the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness. This is marked `allegro sostenuto', which says to me that it should not be too fast, and the galumphing effect is the way I like the piece to be handled.
Kije would be better spelt, Russian-style, as Kizhe, because that would make it clear how the nonexistent lieutenant came into existence through a simple error in word-division. The unusual `name' caught the eye of the Tsar, and from that point on people were panicking around to try to provide him with a life-story in case the Tsar asked any more questions. It all began as a film score apparently, and I should say that is all any of us need to know about the programme in order to enjoy the crisp and smart music.
Not many things are perfect, and no mild reservations that I may have about this set give me any misgiving in awarding all 5 stars. There is a liner-note, and it is rather a pity that it wastes so much of its brief column-allocation in trying to tell us what to admire. What I find admirable I have just tried to explain, and I can summarise it by saying that this is a well-engineered and highly professional reissue of well-directed and highly professional performances.
Only bought this for Lieutenant Kije, but was blown away by the Alexander Neveky soundtrack. Have seen the film in the past, but this modern recording brings out the power of the music and the singing is glorious. A best buy, would like to see a concert version.
Just listened to the Enemy of God section- LOL - makes great Star Trek fighting music, Klingons ahead.