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A picture is worth a thousands notes … or is it ?

03/02/2008 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevksy (with projection of Sergei Eisenstein’s movie)
Anna Stephany (mezzo)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Xian Zhang (direction)

What a challenge for the musicians to play the complete Alexander Nevsky along with the movie. No time to relax, a requirement for a terrible precision to ensure that pictures and music are in sync and above all the need to really sound Russian and display as much character as the images. I remember talking to the timpanist of the Boston Symphony orchestra in 1991when Seiji Ozawa played this piece under the same circumstances for their opening night. He told me that all players were frightened by the piece.

How did the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev’s new forces did ? In short, they scored highly on precision but some key elements of the Russian spirit and sound were missing.

Xian Zhang has made a name over the Ocean by being selected by Lorin Maazel to be her assistant at the New York Philharmonic where she has become a regular. Maazel may have selected her because of the underlying statement of selecting woman and someone from China. This would not do justice to her however, as she displayed a personal authority and a rhythmic drive which were reminiscent of Maazel’s style. She and her forces were at best on the battle scenes which can be very messy on the wrong hands. She definitely would have liked to have a little more time to mould some of the phrases in some more lyrical moments but Eisenstein implacably sets the tempo. Only once was there a real difference in timing during the bonfire scene where the brass players came in a all too visible few seconds later than their visual counterparts.

The weak link of the evening and quite an important one proved to be the chorus. Their singing was too sweet and refined, lacking power and brute force whenever the work required. Bass line should have been far more solid. Overall, we were more hearing a chorus that would be in their element say in a work like Fauré Requiem but worlds apart from a genuine Russian sound. Maybe the treacherous Barbican acoustics were also playing a part. The LSO which we are now accustomed to hearing in Salle Pleyel has much more of colour and sound than what they produced this evening.

Anna Stephany was the mezzo soloist. She does not have nor did not attempt to emulate a throaty Russian voice. This was a wise choice. She sang her part with emotion, a strong sense of phrasing and floated some nice high notes. Britain has a tradition with mezzos and she is a worthy successor and a name to look for.

These minor defaults aside, experiencing music in such conditions is a rare treat. The combination of the music playing and the visual pictures (whose underlining Stalinist messages made some in the audience giggle) is such a unique and strong experience. Anyone who has the opportunity to live this should definitely go and rediscover a masterpiece where the result is more than the sum of its parts.

Antoine Leboyer



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