A Tale of Two Sergeis
Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky, op. 78
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, op. 45
Nadezhda Serdyuk (mezzo-soprano)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, James Bagwell (conductor), The Boston Symphony, Andris Nelsons (conductor)
A. Nelsons (© Carnegie Hall)
The Boston Symphony concluded its seasonal residency with this stupendously effective concert of Prokofiev’s great choral/vocal piece and Rachmaninoff’s late life answer to Broadway. While both pieces commanded a riveted auditorium, it was the Prokofiev, presented first, that imparted the greatest rapture. Originally part of a film score for the eponymous Russian hero Alexander Nevsky, the thirteenth century prince who defeated the invading Teutonic Knights in a famous battle on the frozen Lake Peipus, it had to be repurposed when the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 left the film’s aggressively anti-German bluster politically inconvenient. The music nevertheless survived and soon took on a new significance when Stalin’s rapprochement with Hitler turned sour a couple of years later. In Maestro Andris Nelsons’s evocative reading, the cantata surged forth as every bit the rousing battle cry it was originally meant to be. A youthful 36 and only in his second year with the BSO (though already renewed through 2022), Nelsons brought a wonderfully unnerving level of concentration to his musicians. Ably conducted by James Bagwell, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus leapt from page to page of the score, leaving each one more powerfully interpreted than the last. The cool control of veteran mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdyuk brought vividly to life the plaintive Russian woman who surveys the battlefield for a survivor who might make a handsome groom.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances date from just one year after Prokofiev’s cantata but emerged in very different circumstances. Unlike Prokofiev, who returned to the Soviet Union for good (and for the worse) in the 1930s, Rachmaninoff remained an unrepentant exile and indulged his talent on this piece while ensconced on the North Shore of Long Island. Echoing some of Rachmaninoff’s earlier Orthodox liturgical music, his approach to scored dance also drew from Broadway via his first-ever use of the saxophone and tutorials on the emerging classics of the Great White Way. Nelsons led his players through the near-jazziness of it all with great energy, though modulating down from the vastly more intense Prokofiev piece seems to have been too great a challenge to allow for a perfect rendering. Still, with this concert the BSO’s visit stands as a major success and one of the musical highlights of the early season. Audiences should tremble in anticipation at what its gifted musical director will offer over the next seven years.
Paul du Quenoy