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Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. By Kevin Bartig. Oxford: Oxford UIniversity Press, 2017. (Oxford Keynotes.) [x, 161 p. ISBN 978-0-19-02-6957-9. [pounds sterling]10.99]

This monograph, with its accompanying Web site, offers a rewarding perspective on Prokofiev's score for the film Alexander Nevsky, the cantata the composer fashioned and to a degree re-composed from it, and its various subsequent reincarnations, culminating in late-twentieth-century cinema showings accompanied by full orchestra. Taken together, the composition is rightly seen as "one of the last century's most malleable collection of sounds" (p. 134) and constitutes a well-chosen theme for this imaginative series. Necessarily less detailed than the author's Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), it nevertheless analyses an admirable range of primary sources, particularly in Russian, and employs perceptively chosen illustrations to examine both the genesis of the work and the complicated history of its subsequent reception and dissemination. The author sheds particular light upon Eisenstein's and Prokofiev's working methods and the nature of their collaboration; the director's earlier and less successful working relationship with Gavriil Popov (1904-1972) is examined to suggest why Prokofiev was more fruitful (I wonder whether he was simply, for Eisenstein, the better composer?). Yet one gains glimpses of tensions as well as exhilaration in the Prokofiev--Eisenstein collaboration--for example, Prokofiev's assertively ahistorical parody of the Roman Catholic Mass overrode Eisenstein's wish for something more authentic (p. 49)--as well as both artists' tendency to indulge in intellectualised spin regarding the finished product: the reality of the film's gestation at the time was more a "rapid-fire, occasionally messy progression" (p. 108), which the composer came to feel had absorbed an inordinate amount of time from other musical projects in spite of the generous fee involved.

Bartig's analysis of Prokofiev's astute and (for him) uncharacteristic reference to nineteenth-century Russian antecedents, particularly drawn from Borodin, as a means of drawing audiences "into a story far removed in time from their own experience" (p. 63) is masterly. Likewise, his compelling observation that the creation of the work unwittingly shaped and narrowed the scope of Socialist Realism: ironically, of course, given the post-1948 fate of both the composer and the cantata (but not, we learn, the film). In adapting the score to a cantata, more could have been said about his models in the nineteenth-century Russian repertoire, particularly perhaps the cantatas of Rimsky-Korsakov. But one reads vivid insights into Prokofiev's compositional methods ("he could easily have been planning a ballet", p. 32), which complemented Eisenstein's "resolve that music and image must follow from the same fundamental idea, even if they are conceptually divergent in the completed film" (p. 51).

There are some plausible challenges to orthodox interpretations of the work's reception, though in questioning the degree of its shelving after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, one feels that more contextual evidence is needed, not least reference to the unhappy fate of the composer's anti-German opera Semyon Kotko during the same period, one of several points where constraints of space may have limited further elucidation of argument. In highlighting Prokofiev's posthumous rehabilitation in the late 1950s and 1960s, for example, I would have expected more reference to the Soviet edition of the Cantata and its brief introduction in the Complete Collected Works (and, indeed, a wider comparison of the work's various editions would surely be worthwhile). I was also a little surprised that there was no mention of Claudio Abbado's London Symphony Orchestra's recording of the work for Deutsche Grammophon in 1980, reissued on compact disc with its striking artwork as one of the company's "legendary recordings". Moreover, there are several points where the author rather succumbs to the received readings of works in contrast to the nuanced qualification he undertakes in the case of Alexander Nevsky: in taking the pronouncements of William Walton and Aaron Copland in the secondary literature at face value, for example, and in highlighting the Nazi genesis of Orff's Carmina Burana, a work whose initial reception on the part of Party ideologues was by no means as enthusiastic as it later became, and whose composer's problematic political reputation sits uneasily alongside his less-celebrated development of music for children with special needs.

The series is targeted at "performers, curious listeners, and advanced [?] undergraduates", and is written in a lucid and refreshingly jargonfree style; just occasionally, the sense is opaque ("triangulated the limitations", p. 7; "reflective and prescriptive", p. 96; "formalism(s)", p. 124). The footnotes are indicative of the author's wide-ranging scholarship and primary research and should have been presented in a more user-friendly way, rather than in smaller font in the end pages. But these are minor criticisms of a refreshingly original, open-minded, and engaging study which rightly concludes that "if anything is static or fixed, it is the enduring appeal of Prokofiev's music".

Cameron Pyke

Dulwich College
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Author:Pyke, Cameron
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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