The screening of Sergei Eistenstien’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky at the Barbican Hall had the hallmarks of a big budget première. Seats were sold out; a huge silver screen dominated the stage; and the massed ranks of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were assembled. But the end result didn’t quite live up to the pre-performance hype.
This was not the fault of the players or the singers. It wasn’t even the fault of Prokofiev’s uneven score. Rather, the film showed itself to be a distinctly second rank piece of cinema. It is, after all, a blatantly propagandist work. The eponymous hero – a thirteenth century Russian prince who repulsed the invasion of Teutonic knights in a battle on a frozen lake – is an obvious stand-in for Josef Stalin. And the screenplay – cobbled together by Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko – is a crudely patriotic call to arms to the Russian people at a time when German attack seemed imminent. Interestingly, the film was withdrawn from Russian cinemas after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, but re-released following the invasion of June 1941 (an early scene in which Nevsky rebuffs the offer of an alliance from a wandering Mongol chieftain proved prescient). The addition of some very dodgy sets (blindingly white wood and plaster cathedrals; powder snow; ice blocks like swimming pool floats) and outlandish costumes made for uncomfortable viewing.
Prokofiev’s famed music – which takes up less than half of the film’s lengthy 106 minutes – was performed in a version arranged in 1986 by John Goberman and William D Brohn. Much of the material comes from Prokofiev’s more compact and effective Alexander Nevsky cantata of 1939. Although it is not the greatest of film scores, it does have some stirring moments. Witness, for example, the dramatic intensity of the destruction of Pskov, complete with German soldiers throwing children onto bonfires (a foretaste of the atrocities of the Second World War), and the spectacular battle on the ice. This extended sequence of jabbing strings, clanking percussion and blaring brass calls clearly influenced the celebrated battle music of Walton and Olivier’s 1944 Henry V.
Equally appealing was the lament (expressively sung by mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers) of the Pskov maiden, Vasilisa, searching by torchlight for loved ones on the battlefield. Less endearing were the repeated renditions of the bombastic chorus, ‘Arise, ye Russian people’, although the BBC Symphony Chorus handled this and other passages with dramatic conviction and clarity. Presiding over the massed forces was conductor Martyn Brabbins. He proved the real hero of the evening, directing the orchestra with conviction and precision, ensuring an almost seamless flow of music and cinematography.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk