Upon his return to Russia from the West, Sergei Prokofiev was certainly no stranger to film scores, but he was then to begin a fruitful collaboration with the film maker Sergei Eisenstein. "Alexander Nevsky" in 1938 is the first film they made together, and is a story about an heroic character from Russia's historical past. Good thought the film might be, it is a shame to leave such music forever embedded within the confines of a movie. Nowadays there would be a soundtrack release to free the music, but Prokofiev did the 1930s equivalent by creating a concert work from the music. The film had 21 sections of music, and this was condensed into a Cantata of 7 movements, for a large orchestra and chorus and a part for mezzo-soprano.
Although recordings exist of the work (more about these later), this is one of those pieces that is most effective in a live performance, where the shear presence of these huge musical forces adds immeasurably to the impact on the listener. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus, with Jane Irwin as soloist and under their principle conductor Alexander Lazarev performed this work in Edinburgh on 25th April 2003. Although this orchestra is not a stranger to Prokofiev under their previous conductor Neemi Jarvi, this particular concert marked the end of the season of Prokofiev works including all seven symphonies. The orchestra in Alexander Nevsky is much more than a simple accompanist to the choral material. The music is quite varied, and fully utilises all sections of the orchestra. All were on very good form for this focused workout, producing a superb rendition of this astounding work.
The seven movements tell the story of the Grand Duke Alexander Nevsky. The music is pure Prokofiev, in the patriotic nationalistic mode which befits the subject matter, but the power and drama of the music is unmistakeable and universal. The first movement "Russia under the Mongolian Yoke" is filled with elemental sounds depicted the chaos in the country left behind by these invaders. In "Song about Alexander Nevsky" we are introduced to the hero who had previously vanquished invading Swedes. Then the darkness decends as we are introduced to the country's latest threat "The Crusaders in Pskov" who are an army of Teutonic Knights. The music for this section is very much in the mold of Howard Shore's for the evil forces in Lord of the Rings. The fourth movement "Arise, Ye Russian People" alternates between rousing and quietly confident sections as the national forces gather to repel the enemy on their doorstep.
The climax of the movie and the music is the battle scenes which take place on the frozen Lake Chud in "The Battle on the Ice". The violas follwed by the other strings, playing near the bridge, give a brittle icy quality to the music. This builds to a tremendous climax and the battle breaks into a number of scenes, repeating music from the earlier good and evil forces, painting both success and tragedy and all the emotions of war. The mezzo-soprano joins in the sixth movement for the first time, singing a lament for the loved ones slain during the battle. This is followed by the victorious "Alexander's Entry into Pskov", triumphant in battle, the music uses the hero's theme with patriotism and pride.
Although we recommend the live experience, this is not always possible or convenient. For classic film music fans, the movie itself is availableon DVD, though here are alternative versions of the concert work.