PROKOFIEV: Scythian Suite, op. 20. Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78.
Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano; Kirov Orchestra & Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Pe
tersburg/Valery Gergiev, cond.
Philips 473 600-2 {DDD} TT: 59:33

Prokofiev wrote several ballet scores for Diaghilev, none of which have gained a hold in the standard ballet repertory. However, they have had fair careers as concert suites. The Scythian Suite comes from 1915 began life as the ballet Ala and Lolly of the previous year (which I've never heard of being restaged in the past thirty years). It owes a lot—and pretty obviously so—to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps. Nevertheless, it doesn't slavishly imitate. One can find plenty of Prokofiev in it as well. Still, you can see why it hasn't won the hearts of many listeners. A kind of lush hot-house exoticism—in my opinion, fairly atypical of the composer—clings to the work like a heavy perfume. It dates the work like crazy. One seems to stare at a sepia photograph of a New Orleans prostitute, circa 1910, in some campy, languorous pose.

Nevsky's, of course, a different story—one of Prokofiev's most popular works and a genuine Soviet hit. Prokofiev wrote it for the Eisenstein film. The film, heavily indebted to D. W. Griffith and to John Ford, has dated a bit (Alexander has all the depth of a Schwarzenegger action hero), although the best sequences—the set-pieces, really, like the "Battle on the Ice"—retain their original vigor. Prokofiev's music is certainly one of the finest things about the film, and its support of the action has become a textbook example for aspiring film composers. The music itself remains powerful.

I have four performances of the work: the old Fritz Reiner/Rosalind Elias on RCA; the Thomas Schippers/Lili Chookasian on CBS/Sony; the André Previn/Christine Cairns on Telarc; and this one. The Reiner, musically exciting, is hampered by a lousy English translation. The Previn doesn't seem like much of anything—unexpectedly bland, I'd say. The Schippers is, for my money, the one to beat, and Gergiev, although better than Previn, doesn't really come close in this live recording. There's a perfunctory quality to most of it, as if Gergiev can't wait to get it over with and on to something he actually enjoys. Reiner and Schippers, for example, raised the hairs on your head with the electrifying opening phrases. Gergiev beats time. The players, however, are wonderful, especially the chorus, vivid, powerful, and balanced in tone, with superb diction and great drama. And those Russian basses! "The Battle on the Ice" remains exciting, and Olga Borodina breaks your heart with her aria, "The Field of the Dead." If only the rest of the performance had lived up to these sequences and to the magnificent chorus.
Gergiev has flummoxed me. His Prokofiev series generally wowed me, especially the operas. He's a great theater man, and Nevsky is nothing if not drama. I have no idea what happened here. Perhaps he'll rerecord the cantata when his attention is fully engaged.

S.G.S. (November 2003)