PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky / Lieutenant Kije Suite (Ewa Podles/ Jean-Claude Casadesus/ Latvian State Choir/ Lille National Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557725)
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 Lieutenant Kije Suite, Op. 60
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents werefostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at compositionat the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Gli?¿re. In1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the StPetersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist andcomposer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-studentsAsafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented byLyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as acomposer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducingGlazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of TheScythian Suite
, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gainedexemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after theRevolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite
, arranged from a ballet originallycommissioned by the impresario Diaghilev, the Classical Symphony
and hisfirst Violin Concerto.
Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. By1920, when life in America was proving less immediately rewarding, he moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Diaghilev, for whom he revised The Tale ofthe Buffoon
, a ballet successfully staged in 1921. He spent much of the nextsixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his nativecountry, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first onslaught on musicthat did not suit the political and social aims of the government, falling, as Shostakovichis said to have remarked, 'like a chicken into the soup'. Twelve years later,after the difficult war years, his name was joined with that of Shostakovichand others in explicit official condemnation, now with particular reference toProkofiev's opera War and Peace
. He died in 1953 on the same day asStalin and thus never benefited from the subsequent partial relaxation of officialpolicy on the arts.
The cantata Alexander Nevsky
is drawn from the musicProkofiev wrote in 1938 for Sergey Eisenstein's film dealing with the 13th-centuryconflict between Russia and the Teutonic crusaders, events which seemed to havea contemporary relevance, with the growing threat to Soviet Russia from NaziGermany. Both Eisenstein and Prokofiev had had experience of Hollywood, thelatter during a visit in 1938, and Prokofiev coupled an interest in the newtechnology with an enthusiasm for the medium, demonstrated in the eight film-scoresthat he wrote. These included a further productive collaboration withEisenstein on which he embarked in 1942 in the film Ivan the Terrible
The two worked closely together on Alexander Nevsky
, with scenessometimes following music that had already been written, or at other timescomposed immediately after seeing the first rushes.
The cantata from the film-score for Alexander Nevsky
,which broadly follows the cinematic narrative, opens with music that reflects,in its initial harshness, the suffering of Russia under Mongolian oppression,the cruelty of the oppressors contrasted with the more plaintive materialsuggesting the hardships endured by the people. 'Song about Alexander Nevsky'
celebrates Alexander's defeat of the Swedish armies on the banks of theRiver Neva, in music that reflects the determination of the Russians againsttheir enemies. In 'The Crusaders in Pskov'
Prokofiev, as elsewhere,avoids recourse to anything suggesting music contemporary with the events depictedin the film. The Teutonic crusaders, however, are given a brief Latin text,their music, with its harsh brass chords and hymn-like implications, incontrast to the supplication of the people. There follows a patriotic call tobattle in the stirring 'Arise, ye Russian people'. 'The Battle on the Ice', anextended scene in the film, is depicted first by music that suggests the coldof Russian winter. The approach of the Teutonic knights is heard, with theirchant 'Peregrinus, expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis', as they ride forward.
The Russians, with a motif from 'Arise, ye Russian people', charge againsttheir enemy, and the rival forces clash in mortal struggle. Final Russianvictory, in spite of heavy losses, is celebrated in a triumphant march, with aconcluding reference to the Alexander Nevsky Song. 'The Field of Death'
hasa woman searching for her lover, ready to kiss the one who has died for Russia,and praising the brave rather than the handsome. The cantata ends withAlexander Nevsky's entry into Pskov. The song in his praise is heard, with otherearlier elements of the score recalled before the final triumph.
The well-known music for Lieutenant Kije
was writtenin 1933 for a film, the first of the highly successful film-scores thatProkofiev was to write during the next ten years. Directed by AlexanderFeinzimmer and based on a story by Yuri Tynyanov, the film is a satire onofficial stupidity and subservience, set in the time of Tsar Paul, son ofCatherine the Great. A clerical error adds a non-existent officer to a listpresented to the Tsar, who then singles out this man, Lieutenant Kije, for specialnotice. The officials are too afraid to reveal the true state of affairs, andthe fictitious lieutenant goes on from honour to honour, interrupted only bytemporary disgrace and exile to Siberia, subsequent pardon and promotion to therank of general. He is finally buried in an empty coffin. Prokofiev arrangedthe Suite, Op. 60,
from Lieutenant Kije
in 1934. For this he hadto make considerable adjustments to the original music, but the suite retainsits allusive melodic appeal, notably in the final funeral of Kije, and,particularly in its orchestration, the irony that was at the heart of the storyand the film.