BBC Prom 21

Straddling the interval were the two main works by Prokofiev and Walton.
Having re-settled in Russia in 1936, Prokofiev subsequently made two concert
tours to the West, and it was the second of these to USA in 1938 which took him
to the studios of Hollywood to study film music techniques. Two years later, he
was to make superb use of his observations in his collaboration with film
maker, Sergey Eisenstein, for the director’s celebrated film Alexander
, from which Prokofiev later drew his dramatic cantata.

Made at the height of Stalin’s Terror, the film, essentially a piece of
anti-Nazi propaganda, relates the victory of medieval prince of Novgorod over
Teutonic crusaders in a battle on the frozen Lake Chud. Prokofiev had
experience of such ‘populist’ commemorative works, designed to promote
Stalinist policy, having composed in 1936-7 the mammoth Cantata for the
Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution
, to texts by Marx, Lenin
and Stalin. The work marshalled 500-strong forces to parade the message of
socialist realism. However, the composer was accused of ‘vulgarity’, and
had perhaps been naÔve in choosing texts of such ideological significance, and
it was not performed until many years later; that said, its structure, built-up
of ten large sections, reveals a strong sense of dramatic form which enriches
Alexander Nevsky.

Prokofiev’s move to Russia, after years in the USA and Paris, marked the
beginning of his enforced isolation from Western classical music, if only
because of the disappearance of such ‘progressive’ music from Russian
concert programmes, by order of the Stalinist regime. Any work which adopted a
conspicuously ‘western’ approach risked being condemned as
‘formalistic’, but in this cantata Prokofiev never lapses into the
bombastic bluster which characterised so many ‘socialist realism’ scores,
creating instead a sincere idiom which draws on the modality and form of
Russian folk-song, in the manner of Mussorgsky. Eisenstein’s decision to
adapt the narrative style of the Russian epic form bylina both reflected the
archaic origins of the tale and provided the composer with an appropriate
musical framework.

Mussorgsky’s influence is evident throughout the score, most poignantly
perhaps in penultimate movement, ‘Field of the Dead’, in which a young girl
laments as she seeks the living among the lifeless bodies. Here, Russian
mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdiuk, projected a warm, sincere sound projected
throughout the cavernous hall. Poised in grief, her phrases were eloquently
shaped and sustained.

The CBSO also summoned up medieval worlds in the opening movement, ‘Russia
under the Mongolian Yoke’, where sparse textures and extremes of register
evoked the austerity of a long-distant past. The quasi-folk style continued in
the ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’, which introduced the vibrant CBSO chorus in
resolute style. Although rather too refined and polished to suggest a truly
Russian or Slavonic force, here and in ‘Arise, Russian People’ they built
to an astonishing heroic might, one complemented elsewhere by melancholic
string playing which painted the chill of the icy landscape, the desolation of
the suffering people, and the apprehension before the ensuing battle.

In ‘The Battle on the Ice’, Prokofiev evokes the trials and triumphs of
the battlefield. The longest of Nevsky’s seven movements, its filmic roots
are evident in the episodic structure; here, Nelsons control of pace was
masterly. Brutal repetitive rhythms, vigorous ‘cello playing, dazzling brass
flourishes, and wildly cascading strings and woodwind brought the skirmishes of
battle to life, both its joys and tribulations. The colourful percussive
finale, as the victorious Nevsky enters Pskov, was electrifying.

Commissioned by Jascha Heifetz, Walton’s Violin Concerto is an odd mixture
of sensuous, indulgent lyricism and extravagant technical virtuosity. An
unusual combination of objective modernist form with deeply Romantic
expression, throughout the three movements melancholic dreaming yields without
warning to angry, even spiteful, eruptions. Japanese American violinist,
Midori, began introspectively — and there were some inequalities of balance
— her quiet reveries building to a broader lyricism in the arching song-like
melodies of the opening Andante tranquillo. Tiny, hunched forward, she
unleashed astonishing outbursts of energy. The exuberant, quicksilver
Italianate scherzo, Presto capriccioso alla napolitana, revealed a
playful brilliance, as soloist and orchestra danced through a
tarantella and ironic mock-waltz. The horn melody in the central trio,
canzonetta, was suitably dreamy, before the Neapolitan folksong was
passed to the solo violin whose ethereal harmonics climbed ever higher.

The canzonetta theme is transformed into a march-like melody for
final Vivace, a dramatic polyphonic dialogue between soloist and
orchestra alternating with tender, ardent melodies, and here soloist and
orchestra presented a brilliant display of technical dexterity and masterly
musicianship, united in purpose and execution.

Nelsons’ innate feeling for orchestral colour and pace was also apparent
in the two works by Richard Strauss which framed the concert. The CBSO relished
the exquisite textures and timbres of Don Juan, revelling in the
tender delicacy and lush richness which express the youthful Strauss’ own
life and loves. Nelsons, despite his unceasing animation, kept a tight reign on
proceedings, perfectly controlling the subdued, minor key close which denies
the audience, and the eponymous ‘hero’, a concluding sense of joy and
‘victory’. There was some superb solo playing from the principal woodwind,
especially oboist Rainer Dutch, whose exquisite tone and shaping of phrase were
a delight. Virtuosic feats from the enlarged orchestra continued in the slinky
‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, effectively a flamboyant orchestral encore to a
consummate evening of music-making.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Icon of Alexander Nevsky [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=R. Strauss: Don Juan; Walton: Violin Concerto; Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky; R. Strauss: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (SalomÈ).
product_by=Midori , violin. Nadezhda Serdiuk , mezzo-soprano. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. CBSO Chorus. Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Royal Albert Hall, London, Saturday 30th July, 2011.
product_id=Above: Icon of Alexander Nevsky [Source: Wikipedia]