Adapting the film music he wrote for the trailblazing Sergei Einsensteim film about the great Russian hero Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev outdid himself in color, the artful massing of huge musical forces, and sheet panorama of effect. I am reviewing both the CD and the DVD-audio versions of this recording; because I started off with the CD and later switched to the incredible DVD-audio version. Though I don't see the DVD-audio version listed on this website, that is probably just a glitch since I easily obtained it from my local store.
I am a great fan of the cantata. I have always reveled in the grand sweep of the orchestral writing; and the familiar Battle on the Ice scene will probably be one cut you can use to show off your rig. Particularly if you have a multi-channel system, the DVD-audio disc will stun and amaze you with the great waves of sound. There is more going on that just fast car chases or thundering explosions in this cantata. Musically, the heroic sweep of the historical moment is etched, using a chorus to characterize both the Russian people and the invading Teutonic knights. Prokofiev's ability to write dramatic high points, in keeping with the story, is not in doubt. But the equally lovely Prokofiev capacity for lyric sweetness gets plenty of exposure and almost steals the show, lingering long after the big moments have echoed away.
First off, I was disappointed in the CD. I have a good basic multichannel system (Bryston power amps/B&K preamp, running five full-range Def Tech speakers), and I found the 16-bit regular CD sound stage too flat to be interesting. The performance in CD just sounded too rough and ready, too brash and headlong to capture and recreate all the subtleties that the composer has written into this cantata. The chorus is miked from some distance, and sounds like massed voices without vocal individualities of tone. Good try, I thought, but probably not a CD keeper.
Next, I put on the DVD-audio version of this same performance. Wow, what a difference. The sound stage opens up, such that the whole venue of the largish recording studio is now spread out before you, sonically. The frequency range is, given the 24-bit expansion, as good or better than captured on the regular CD. The orchestra still retains its rough and ready tonal qualities, but a new polish is also captured, so that what previously seemed disappointing and flat now seems extra-vivid, tonally piquant, and entirely appropriate for the character and meaning of this work. Violins, woodwinds, and even brass have a sheen and a phrasing that barely begins to be evident in the regular CD version. The quieter moments are almost more compelling in DVD-audio than the loud moments. Even when the orchestra and chorus are all going full out, the sound stage does not compress or collapse on DVD-audio, and you get a differentiated sound stage with multiple images of all the instruments and singers. Even with the chorus having been miked from a bit of distance, on DVD-audio you get vivid reproduction of the chorus as large body of singers composed of individual singers with distinctive voices. Since the chorus is representing the Russian people, this kind of variety and intensity of intonation only adds to the musical effect. Irina Gelhova acquits herself well as the soloist, musing in grief over the battlefield with its slain warriors and lamenting their deaths while committing herself to marry a Russian hero. Multi-channel surround sound seems invented for just this kind of music, and the DVD-audio version lets it all ring out.
Even if your DVD player will only play DolbyDig, you can still get the surround sound because a standard movie sound mix is included on the DVD along with the even more fastidious DVD-audio mix. (I am using the recent Pioneer DVD-563A universal format player; it does very well in all formats.)
My conclusion: Five stars in DVD-audio; Two stars in regular CD. If you are restricted to standard CD, the recording from Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony will easily eclipse the Naxos. Jard Nes is the soloist. Mid-price on RCA/BMG you can still find the old but very good Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording with Rosalind Elias as soloist. But consider getting into DVD-audio, with the newer and more affordable universal players (Best Buy locally had the Pioneer for 140.--), you can achieve glorious musical surround in your own home or apartment. Naxos is apparently planning other high resolution releases in both SACD and DVD-audio; so upgrading will connect you in the future with probably stunning recordings on this label. Other worthy Naxos release in the DVD-audio format include: A wonderful Vivaldi Four Seasons; Highlights of the complete recording of Mozart's Don Giovanni; Elgar's completed third symphony; Holst's Planets. One can only hope that Naxos, who have released a very good Mussorgsky Pictures (Kuchar/Ukraine Symphony) on regular CD will see fit to also release a DVD-audio version. That would truly be something to hear and hear again. The next round of Naxos will include a Rachmaninoff 2&3 piano concerto recording, with the redoubtable Scherbakov. Naxos is releasing it in both high resolution formats: SACD and DVD-audio.