on 11 October 2005
From the first ominous notes you anticipate a dramatic piece. While there is drama and tension, however, the dynamic mood of the work is optimistic and inspirational. A notable propaganda film prefiguring the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Prokofiev's score is a rousing appeal to the Russian people to unite and fight, not simply confident of victory, but imbued with a spiritual conviction in their destiny.
Though written to complement the film, Prokofiev's score is an eminently enjoyable piece in its own right - to be enhanced, perhaps, by a viewing of the film, giving you the ability to relate the visual and the musical dynamic. It is a work of rapidly flowing and fluctuating mood, its pace dictated by the crafting of the celluloid images, but its cerebral appeal no less intense for that - this is no flowing tide of romanticism but a work of abrupt scene change, sometimes dissonant, sometimes emotively inspirational (as when the choir sings), sometimes tense, at others calming, flowing easily, then even hinting at jazz!
The film, itself, has dated considerably - its acting is far too melodramatic and demonstratively over-the-top for modern, naturalistic tastes, and its editing and direction (yes, even by such a colossus as Eisenstein) can be a trifle obvious and heavy handed in places. Nevertheless, it remains a classic visual work which enhances and is enhanced by Prokofiev's score. Making allowances for changing tastes and technologies - anyone wishing to write music for the cinema or television should study 'Nevsky' and the collaboration between director and composer.
Moody, occasionally flamboyant, running from pure joy to sombre contemplation of pain and death, 'Alexander Nevsky' is an unapologetically Russian hymn. It evokes the heart and soul of Russia as thoroughly as Tolstoy or Dostoievsky. But it's a Russia in the balance, experiencing threat, anticipating possible annihilation, seeking to rediscover its roots and the strength to resist and triumph.
Although a 'Stalinist' work, Prokofiev is not simply penning propaganda. The undercurrent of emotion, felt throughout the work, is one of trust in and faith in the Russian people, not the Stalinist regime. It will be the people's blood which triumphs, not Stalin's! Ultimately, he is proclaiming that Russia will not only survive Hitler, it will survive Stalin! Eisenstein's film also seems to embody this dangerous message - it is the inherent strength and courage of the Russian people which will prevail, not political ideology! Stalin might dress himself in the patriotic cloak of Nevsky, but the music and film celebrate Russia and its peoples, not its dictator.
Abbado's version captures all this emotion and dynamism better than any other. Listen to it and watch the film, comparing the original score to Abbado's no less emotional, but perhaps more cerebral interpretation. The technical quality of Abbado's recording is, necessarily, excellent, and its coupling with the Scythian Suite and Lt.Kije gives you an excellent introduction to Prokofiev. To my mind the best version of Nevsky on the market, enhanced by the other two pieces - a dynamic, inspirational, and thoroughly enjoyable recording.