Alexander Nevsky | Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra
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Alexander Nevsky | Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra

NEW YORK CITY
Carnegie Hall
10/22/15

ON OCTOBER 22, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony concluded the third day of a Carnegie Hall vastly successful residency with an all-Russian program dominated by Sergei Prokofiev’s 1939 concert cantata Alexander Nevsky. The work, for huge orchestral forces, chorus and contralto, derived from but also varies in detail from the magnificent music Prokofiev crafted at top speed for Sergei Eisenstein’s striking 1938 historical/propaganda film of the same name. Listeners new to Nevsky might have recognized some of its themes from War and Peace: the composer recycled them in Kutuzov’s aria and the patriotic finale. Operatic sources for some of Prokofiev’s deft instrumentation choices include Glinka’s Ruslan and Liudmila and Glazunov’s overture to Borodin’s Prince Igor, omitted in the recent Met staging. Nevsky is a thrilling piece to encounter in a sonically magical hall, and Nelsons displayed complete command of it. The percussion section had a (battle) field day, and—as at the previous day’s Elektra—the Boston strings proved wondrous in their cushioned texture and clean attack.

Mariinsky Theater mezzo Nadezhda Serdyuk had made a trenchant First Maid in the previous night’s resounding Elektra. Her entrance to sing the spirited, moving Lament “The Field of the Dead” was well timed: clad in black, she passed with dignity through the violin section and arrived next to Nelsons’ podium at the perfect moment to begin that movement. Dramatically, it might have been better to have her—as the representative of the catastrophe’s survivors—leave the stage before the upbeat final chorus hymning Nevsky. Perhaps the fear was that people would applaud? At any rate, Serdyuk sang with commendable sincerity, evenness and poise. She does not command the deep, “earth-mother” richness of an Irina Arkhipova, Lili Chookasian or Ewa Podles—and the Lament seems to cross over from touching to devastating only with such a voice deployed. But Serdyuk’s vocalism was assured, with a lovely spin on the final word, and her clearly uttered text was a tonic after the Americanized vowels and loosely conceived consonants of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. In most other ways, however, James Bagwell’s choral forces—absent, of course, the authentic tinge of awesome Russian bass sound—were remarkable for both sonority and precision, both in dynamics and cut-offs. The cantata’s choral parts demand a full range of expression, from ethereal to sinister (the Latin texts of the Teutonic Knights’ spiritual guides, who are corrupt, terrifying figures in the film) to ecstatic. Nothing was stinted.

The evening concluded with Sergei Rachmaninov’s final work, the career-summatory, nostalgic Symphonic Dances, premièred by the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1941 and first heard in Carnegie days later. The composer’s only music for saxophone stood out amidst the BSO’s remarkably harmonious and controlled playing. Nelsons and his forces will clearly be welcome, envy-inducing guests whenever they concertize in New York. —David Shengold 

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