February 08, 2024


Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (cantata); Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Claudine Carlson, mezzo-soprano; Arnold Voketaitis, bass; St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Vox. $16.99.

     Prokofiev was scarcely the first great composer to write music for film – that honor belongs, surprisingly, to Saint-Saëns, who at the age of 73 wrote music to be performed to accompany L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908). “Film music,” scarcely a distinct category in the early 20th century, essentially underlined and accentuated the emotional and action points of silent movies, functioning much as music already had for many years with otherwise silent, visually oriented performances – such as ballet. As the century progressed, more and more concert-hall composers tried their hand at film music, while an entire subgenre of music for the movies attracted classically trained composers who ended up specializing in works for the visual medium and established themselves (although they did not always wish to do so) as being film composers above all.

     Film music developed along with the film medium itself, with a few directors understanding intuitively that music could be more than an accompaniment to visuals and could be used as a sort of character in its own right, pulling movies in new directions and heightening their effect on audiences. Prokofiev was fortunate to have the chance to work with one of the most-perceptive directors of the silent-film era, Sergei Eisenstein – for whom the composer ended up engaged in an amazing instance of mythic storytelling for the film Alexander Nevsky. The movie is Eisenstein’s retelling of a battle from the year 1242, in which forces led by the title character – who was awarded the honorific “Nevsky” after a previous triumph in 1240 – beat back an attack on Novgorod by the Knights of the Teutonic Order. Eisenstein created a work of grand sweep and strong emotionalism, with an extended climactic battle on a frozen lake through which the enemy invaders eventually fall to their doom. Triumphalism and moving tributes to the heroic Russian dead frame the climactic scene – and Prokofiev rose brilliantly to the occasion, producing music of power and emotional heft that complemented the visualization of the battle and skillfully drew the audience into the reimagined time period of the 13th century. Careful later scholarship has determined that the battle in 1242 was neither as significant nor as decisive as Eisenstein made it, and that the grand falling-through-the-ice demise of the Teutonic cavalry never happened – but all of that scarcely matters for a film that is a rousing success on its own terms and that was designed, in the Soviet Union of 1938, to rehabilitate a military figure of Old Russia in such a way as to boost Stalin’s regime.

     Prokofiev knew that the scale and emotion of his music fitted it well for concert performance, and he created from it a cantata that encapsulates the story while very effectively highlighting its grand, even grandiose elements. Leonard Slatkin took the full measure of this cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra in a 1977 recording for Vox that has now been very well remastered and re-released on CD. Slatkin, a fine conductor of “pops” as well as the classical canon, builds each of the seven sections of the cantata very well, as the chorus and mezzo-soprano Claudine Carlson sing with strength and clarity about Nevsky himself, his grand triumph, and the greatness of Russia. Yes, the work is bombastic, but it is effectively bombastic, fitting its theme quite well and standing on its own to very good effect – familiarity with Eisenstein’s film is not necessary to obtain the full impact of Prokofiev’s well-thought-out musical canvas.

     And Alexander Nevsky showed only one portion of Prokofiev’s cleverness and adaptability to the film medium. Back in 1934, just a year after returning to the Soviet Union from the West, Prokofiev created his very first film score, for a work directed by Aleksandr Feinzimmer called The Czar Wants to Sleep. No one knows the movie by that name anymore – instead, it is known by the name that Prokofiev gave to the suite he extracted from his music for it, Lieutenant Kijé. As heavy (almost heavy-handed) as the music for Alexander Nevsky was to be, that for Lieutenant Kijé was light to the point of frothiness – remaining a delight to this day. The entire film is based on the mis-hearing of a phrase by Tsar Nicholas I around 1830 – in which the Tsar, who of course could not be corrected or contradicted in any way, thinks he hears the name “Lieutenant Kijé” even though that is not what has been said. This forces everyone involved to create an entirely fictional lieutenant whose exploits can be presented to the Tsar in response to his demand to see the man’s dossier. This story could easily have been a biting satire and commentary on the depredations of the tsars – indeed, it is somewhat surprising that this was not the approach of Feinzimmer and Prokofiev, given what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time the movie was made. Instead, director and composer chose a light, fairy-tale-like approach to the material that resulted in the spinning of a tale including romantic and heroic elements in equal measure, all tied together by music that never rises above levity and that remains wry and witty rather than in any way sarcastic. A much later filmmaker, Woody Allen, focused his Love and Death (1976) on this fairy-tale approach to an exceptional effect, with his film’s music entirely taken from Prokofiev’s works and the Lieutenant Kijé material being especially noteworthy in the entirely new context. Slatkin shows his versatility in the 1979 performance included on this CD, handling the material with a light touch that brings forth the piquancy and occasional elegance of Prokofiev’s scoring while keeping the tone of the material always light and always surface-level – a strong contrast to the seriousness of Alexander Nevsky. The pairing of these two Prokofiev film-score-derived works is by no means unusual, but it is especially well-done on this re-release, showcasing Slatkin’s skill with interpreting and presenting the material just as neatly as it shows Prokofiev’s in creating the music in the first place.

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