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Serge and the Wolf

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
04/05/2002 -  
Serge Prokofieff: Alexander Nevsky
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem

Edith Wiens (soprano)
Nancy Maultsby (mezzo)
Stanford Olsen (tenor)
Nathan Berg (bass)
New York Choral Artists
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

“My mind is always easy because I know that exactly at 11:55 A.M. a small dark blue automobile will come through the gates of the film studio. Serge Prokofieff will get out of the car. In his hands will be the next piece of music for Alexander Nevsky.”

Sergei Eisenstein

2003 marks the 200th birthday of Hector Berlioz and the new brochures for the first half of the year are filled with the promise of many concerts and operas commemorating the event. Although I couldn’t be more delighted, I am at the same time disappointed that another significant anniversary, the 50th death year of Serge Prokofieff, is passing more quietly in New York. The death itself was virtually neglected, as this great national treasure shuffled off this mortal coil on the same day (March 5, 1953) as his nemesis Joseph Stalin and the government instantly decreed the week completely dedicated to the observance of the monster’s funeral. In Moscow, all flowers were exclusively to be used to decorate the bier of the dictator and so the casket of this wonderfully inventive and rebellious composer went to its final resting place unadorned. With the benefit of those 50 years of historical perspective, it is obvious that Prokofieff was the man to be honored (although the paucity of planned events seems to fly in the face of this logic), his remarkable output of symphonies, operas, concerti and, most especially, ballets one of the most fruitful of the last century. A more enlightened contemporary public will continue to feel the excitement of his rich scores, wonder at his childlike imagination, laugh at his acerbic ironies and luxuriate in the beauties of his melodic invention while remembering Stalin, if at all, as a depraved megalomaniac. Thus history puts flowers on the grave of Serge Prokofieff.

Just as sure as Schubert was the greatest composer of lieder, Prokofieff towers over his competition in one particular genre: music for the film. Not only did he produce incredibly powerful scores, timed to the split second, on demand, making Eisenstein’s life much less complicated, but he was able to create the exactly correct mood and describe the emotions and action of the film so perfectly as to allow his directors to present a delicately crafted juxtaposition of aesthetic stimuli: one can appreciate Ivan the Terrible, Lt. Kije or Alexander Nevsky just as well with the eyes wide shut. In fact, the music is so evocative that the film “Love and Death”, a clever send-up of all things Russian, would be much less atmospheric without Woody Allen’s use of the music from Kije as its signature theme (actually a parody of a parody). Although the relationship between the visual and the aural was fortuitously symbiotic in these important collaborations, the music can stand alone just as proudly. Performances of the scores complete with vocal lines are extremely rare (no one ever presents Kije with the original songs for baritone) and so it was a pleasure to anticipate a reading of Nevsky by the New York Philharmonic and its sister chorus. Hearing this jingoistic music conducted by a German is still a little surreal; it is interesting to contemplate that Kurt Masur’s mature musical life was entirely determined by the outcome of that famous battle on the ice.

This is a big work (Stokowski conducted the Philharmonic premiere at Madison Square Garden) and Maestro established right from its first harshly bizarre diphthongs (the film grabs you and holds you in an iron grip even before the first brutal visuals) that this was to be an intense performance. What was particularly noticeable was its color, the upfront violas playing like banshees at the most spectral spot. The entire instrumental ensemble seemed more than usually invested, digging in with relish to such a densely savage score. Nancy Maultsby’s “Field of the Dead” section was sung with great pathos and she received the warmest ovation at the conclusion. My only reservation with this reading was the stiffness of the chorus, who may have been slightly thrown by the intermingling of languages (Russian and Latin) and spent more time minding their transliterated p’s and q’s than displaying their true emotions.

I will never accept miking in the concert hall or opera house and will go to my grave protesting this type of chicanery. What could have been an interesting presentation of the Mozart (Bruckner fans take note: they used the Nowak edition of the Suessmayr version) was ruined by the homogeneity of the solo voices, turning the entire experience into the blandest kind of pop soup. I have heard Stanford Olsen before and know that his voice is distinctive but not large; in this looking-glass performance it was large but not distinctive. In fact, he achieved exactly the same volume level as his three colleagues. It would seem that all of the soloists did at least a competent job, but who really knows under these oppressive conditions? Masur’s inbred Teutonic restraint devolved into tedium in spots and the use of a very small orchestra, especially after the Malthusian band for the Prokofieff, sounded thin and a bit whiny. The New York Choral Artists mounted rather a toothless effort, especially weak in what should be the most passionately angry sections, such as the Dies irae and the male part of the Confutatis. During that odd period at the end of last year when there was a Brahms Requiem almost every week, this chorus sang the great work here at Avery Fisher while the Collegiate Chorale performed it much more impressively down the street at Carnegie. Although they maintain professionally reliable intonation (not always a given for large singing groups), their realizations lack power and contrast, transfusing pale plasma into this “end with a whimper” performance, already suffering from the stylistic contrast with the Prokofieff. To make a connection between the two works on the program (there seemed to be little thematic consanguinity), the Mozart was used in a film as well, however Milos Forman would probably have chosen other aural imagery to convey Amadeus’ Oedipal anger if faced with such a lackluster reading as this one.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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