Prokofiev on fire in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 29.04.2016

“Alexander Nevsky”, the cantata version of Sergei Prokofiev’s film score from 1938, captivated a full house at the Bordeaux Auditorium last night (Thursday, April 28) with a degree of fire and heart that other orchestras often lack. Paul Daniel conducted the Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine and a 75-voice chorus in this pristine performance. Mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo sang the lament for dead warriors, a scene artfully staged and magnificently voiced.

Daniel had honed the orchestra in rehearsal to a fine sharpness that evoked clashing swords, tromping boots, cries of death and the chaos of war. The 13th-century Nevsky victory over Swedish and German invaders is part of the national narrative that every Russian child knows by heart. For 40 minutes, Bordeaux seemed very Russian.

Paul Daniel, drawing by Michael Johnson, the author

The cantata is nothing if not a workout for the orchestra and chorus. Daniel’s balletic conducting style is always an inspiration for players and the audience. At peak dramatic moments in this performance, his feet left the podium twice. During curtain calls he singled out the brass and percussion for special notice.

In seven substantial sections, ancient Russian history is depicted in mood swings from hatred of the Mongol yoke to the awakening of the Russian people, to the Battle on the Ice, the Field of the Dead, and finally the victory celebration in Pskov. An overhead screen displayed somewhat disjointed hints of the action being portrayed.

The French Army Choir, merged with the National Opera Choir, produced a noticeable Russian timbre and was perfectly in sync with the large orchestra. Ms. Extrémo caused a frisson in the audience as she shuffled slowly to center stage and began her lugubrious lament to widows and the dead, a kind of low-key melopoeia, then shuffled offstage.

In Moscow film studios 77 years ago, Prokofiev worked closely with pioneering director Sergei Eisenstein to achieve special musical effects for the original sound track. One Prokofiev biographer noted that Eisenstein would sometimes require a few additional measures to complete a scene. Prokofiev would retire to expand his music, producing the required notes to the second. Cinema music heretofore had been a minor art form but Prokofiev wrote in his autobiography that he felt movies “offer new and fascinating possibilities to the composer”. And so it has proven.

The cantata version was edited and reorganized by Prokofiev a year after the film release. Prokofiev was already an internationally known avant garde composer and his cantata was immediately taken up by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. It was the eve of World War II and the theme of repulsing German aggression resonated with European and American audiences. Russians, who went on to suffer again under the Germans, saw the strangely prophetic parallels and clung to the patriotic message.

Paul Daniel paired Prokofiev with another cinema creation, William Walton’s 1944 “Henry V”. Walton declined to rework his creation as a concert piece, writing that his cinema work had no intrinsic musical value. Others disagreed, and thus orchestrator Christopher Palmer revised the score and added a recitation based on Shakespeare’s original play. The concert piece was titled “Henry V, a Shakespeare Scenario”. British actor and director Samuel West, a friend of Daniel, recited the 45-minute work from memory in English as French surtitles flashed overhead.

Daniel and Palmer seemed comfortable in their dual performance. A standing ovation of some 15 minutes followed the production.

Surprisingly, no one in the Bordeaux audience was particularly bothered by the fact that Henry V is a historical work based on events leading to the conquest of France by England, including the pivotal Battle of Agincourt. If this was a Paul Daniel joke, no one seemed to get it.

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