November 2003

Alexander Nevsky;
Music to Shakespeare's
Hamlet; Ivan the Terrible

Naxos 5.110015, DVD-Audio, contains 5.1 MLP, Dolby Digital, and DTS tracks.
Released: 2003

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

Most composers who write for the concert hall have had terrible experiences with film, writing uncomfortable music that is now best forgotten, though occasionally revived as a curiosity. There have been exceptions. One of the foremost is Sergei Prokofiev's music for the Sergei Eisenstein historical epic movie, Alexander Nevsky. Only a year after the film's premiere in 1938, Prokofiev had arranged his magnificent music into a powerful cantata for mezzo-soprano soloist, chorus, and huge orchestra. As such, it has become a popular work in the concert hall, and a challenge in the recording studio.

A number of impressive recordings of it have been released through the years. Leonard Slatkin's lean-machine reading on Vox comes to mind, as do the two lusher but no less savage readings from André Previn, one on EMI and one on Telarc. My own previous favorite has been a traversal by Thomas Schippers with the New York Philharmonic that I felt perfectly balanced the lyric and dramatic facets of the score. That performance has been re-mixed as an outstanding 5.1 multichannel SACD release on Sony.

All of those excellent performances pale when confronted with this new one. The musicians are all first-rate and sound thoroughly committed to this colorful music. The pitch-perfect Russian chorus has no problem at all projecting the text, and the virtuoso orchestra members have no difficulty in playing the spots off all the notes. Maestro Yablonsky favors the dramatic portions of the score without slighting the lyric ones. All of the melodic lines sing, and they just do so in dramatic fashion.

The MLP, advanced-resolution 5.1 sound is awesome. Every line of music is clear, even in complex and mammoth tuttis. Those detailed full-orchestra outbursts also have enough energy to raise the hair on the back of one's neck, not to mention breaking leases. Yet, a pianissimo passage that it barely audible has the same presence as the fortissimo ones! The front soundstage is quite wide. The chorus is clearly placed behind the orchestra, yet its sound bounces off the rear walls to give it more impact. Bass is very impressive, and the top end is bright without ever becoming shrill. Overall, this is the best DVD-Audio of orchestral music that I have so far heard. The Dolby Digital and DTS tracks are quite impressive, too, though lacking the ultimate definition and presence of the MLP ones.

The disc is generously filled with other Prokofiev music originally written for stage and film. Much of this is dance music and Yablonsky and company find foot-tapping delight in every Polonaise and Mazurka. There are no video extras, just a different still slide picture for each chapter stop. A recording that makes a very strong case for the format and one that should cause DVD-Audio supporters to leap for joy.