Orchestra plays "Alexander Nevsky' (2nd review)

Don't mess with Mother Russia

Eisenstein at work: Currying favor with Stalin?
Eisenstein at work: Currying favor with Stalin?

Sergei Eisenstein's most groundbreaking film work was behind him by 1938, when he made Alexander Nevsky, and yet it continues to dazzle us with an extraordinary stew of cinematography that still seems modern: vivid story-telling, searing history and, of course, music, courtesy of Sergei Prokofiev's glorious score. The film's presentation at Verizon Hall, with live accompaniment from the Philadelphia Orchestra, was so spectacularly seamless that the synthetic effect of all of the elements caused them to meld into a singular artistic experience.

My friend and colleague Kile Smith wrote on these pages recently about the transcendence of great music over historical circumstance, noting that virtually no one associates the Beethoven Third Symphony with its original dedicatee, Napoleon, and that even the music of Shostakovich can now be heard outside of the context of the composer's wrenching battles with Soviet censors, and especially, Stalin himself. (To read Kile Smith's essay, click here.)

Nazi invasion foretold

I mostly agree. But to my sensibilities, Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony can't be heard without conjuring the physical devastation and human catastrophe wrought on the city of Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) by the invading Germans in 1941. And in the case of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, which many music lovers know in a concert cantata version made by the composer, the history clings tightly to the art.

The addition of Eisenstein's mesmerizing imagery tightens the bond. The harrowing scene in which German knights toss Russian toddlers into pyres is unforgettably chilling, considering that exactly that sort of barbarity would soon in fact occur on the same soil and between the same adversaries. The panorama of mothers searching for their slain sons in the smoldering battlefield would be repeated in reality just a few years after the film's release.

Currying Stalin's favor

No doubt both Eisenstein and Prokofiev modified their more modernistic, intellectual tendencies to produce a populist work that curried favor with Stalin (who was reported to have told the filmmaker, after the premiere of Nevsky, "Sergei Mikhailovich, you are a good Bolshevik after all"). The film's characters are drawn thin and rely on stereotypes— the buck-toothed and garrulous peasant, the shy pale-eyed maiden, the old Jewish storyteller, to name a few.

Even the title character is played as a laconic strong man who speaks volumes with a twinkle of his eyes and a thrust of his chiseled chin. He would fit easily into a classic Hollywood Western.

Prokofiev's score is overtly patriotic, even jingoistic, and relies heavily on folk elements, a practice that was enthusiastically endorsed by the cultural commissars of the time.

But populism isn't a dirty word; it fits many great works of art. Alexander Nevsky need not be associated with the monstrosity of Stalinism; instead it belongs with the true spirit and bravery of a nation, as well as its people's unimaginable suffering.

This dusty old black and white film still packs a wallop, and the Philadelphia Orchestra deserves high praise for staging an exceptionally well prepared and powerfully executed production of this masterful mélange of art forms.♦

To read another review by Andrew Mangravite, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

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