Neeme Jarvi, PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky / Scythian Suite

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Prokofiev's score to the Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky is several things at once: it is, first and foremost, one of the greatest compositions ever written for film; to see the armies massed before the epic “Battle On the Ice,” with the glittering, bone-chilling music as practically the only sound, is still one of cinema's most memorable moments. Nevsky, though, is also an example of Art triumphing over The Message. The film was, after all, a thinly disguised piece of anti-German propaganda. Everyone was meant to understand that Nevsky's heroic defense of the Russian motherland against the Teutonic Knights represented the great threat posed by Hitler in 1938. But Prokofiev's score (and, it should be said, Eisenstein's filmmaking) transcends the demands of the story and has become a justly praised piece of art.

One of the greatest compositions ever written for film.

Prokofiev's use of the chorus, in songs like “Arise Ye Russian People” and “Song of Alexander Nevsky,” often walks a tightrope between the truly grand and the merely bombastic. But unlike some of the other works he was compelled to write (a choral tribute to Stalin, for example) at the time, this music stands on its own. Conductor Neeme Järvi doesn't get fancy here, he just lets the piece weave its spell. He does, though, make an interesting choice to round out the album: The Scythian Suite is unaccountably overlooked by most orchestras. But Jarvi recognizes that it is one of Prokofiev's most colorful scores, full of pagan ritual stomping (for you unrepentant prog-rock fans, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer did a version of “The Dance of the Enemy God”) and an evocative piece of “night music” that would've made Béla Bartók jealous. I guess what I'm saying is — don't just stop with the hit piece; this is a good time for that “Download All” button.