The BSO performs a Russian classic, `Alexander Nevsky'

Collaboration between Prokofiev and Eisenstein

Movies -- On Screen * Dvd/video

November 13, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There's a thin line between art and entertainment, an equally thin one between entertainment and propaganda. Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, with its spectacular musical score by Sergei Prokofiev, manages to combine art, entertainment and propaganda in one indelible package.

Today, the political implications do not overwhelm the movie, as they would have for audiences in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. The artistic quality is what strikes home most forcefully now, as is bound to be the case when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presents a performance of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky in synch with the film tonight and tomorrow. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and the Choral Arts Society of Washington will join the BSO for this multi-sensory experience, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, one of the world's leading interpreters of Prokofiev's music.

Eisenstein, whose 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin established him as one of the world's most inspired filmmakers (that iconic classic continues to influence directors), was keenly aware of the need to satisfy the Stalin regime. If he wanted to work, he would have to give the state what it craved.

A celebration of a 13th-century Russia hero named Alexander Nevsky and his defeat of an invading German army was just the ticket. After all, Stalin saw himself as a direct descendant in style and stature of Nevsky and other Russian heroes; and, by 1938, the threat posed by Nazi Germany was a deep concern of all Russians. (The director could not have guessed that Stalin would later reach a detente with Hitler, making his film temporarily out of favor.)

Prokofiev, who had recently developed a keen interest in the challenges and rewards of writing movie music, was another astute choice of Eisenstein's. The two men enjoyed an effortless collaboration, each inspiring the other.

Prokofiev based some of the rhythms in his score on the rhythm of the footage he saw as the film was being shot. Conversely, the composer sometimes wrote material for a scene that hadn't yet been filmed, and the director then would make sure that the filming matched the rhythm of the music.

(Eisenstein and Prokofiev teamed up again a few years later to equally brilliant effect for Ivan the Terrible, though that project ran afoul of Stalin the Terrible.)

Alexander Nevsky represents a striking fusion of audio and visual drama - someone has dubbed it "the first music video." Imagery from the movie is not easily forgotten.

Eisenstein recreates the medieval world in chilling detail, especially when it comes to the Teutonic Knights and their incursion into Russia. Just the sight of their helmets, with those eerie cross-shaped slits, is menacing enough. Their self-righteous air is as effectively conveyed as their cruelty (we see executions and babies thrown into pyres, while a bony bishop looks on with glee).

Nevsky's hero-to-the-rescue appearance has all the subtlety of a cartoon show, but Eisenstein manages to redeem the heavy-handedness of the political message with superbly crafted camera angles and editing. The film builds steadily to the climactic Battle on the Ice, which takes up nearly half the movie. The striking direction and cinematography are all the more impressive when you realize that long scene was filmed during a summer heat wave, using artificial ice and a mixture of crushed asphalt, glass and sand substituting for snow.

Throughout the picture, Prokofiev's contribution does its own vivid conjuring. Maybe a few passages of the battle music sound too bouncy and even a little flip as bodies are sliced up, but the overall effect of the score could not be more telling.

The Germans are identified by heavy, musty music that suggests an overblown Gregorian chant; they are made to sound thoroughly, scarily foreign. To depict the Russians, Prokofiev gives us the full flower of his lyrical, folk-song style, reaching a peak of eloquence during the post-battle scene, when a woman wanders through the bodies of Russian heroes, singing of how they shed "warm, red blood like the rain."

After the movie was made, Prokofiev refashioned the film score into a cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra that has proven to be one of his most durable concert works. (The BSO will perform this version on Tuesday at the Kennedy Center in Washington.) The opportunity to hear the music back in its original context, complementing Eisenstein's incisive vision, is self-recommending.

For film events, see Page 42.


What: Alexander Nevsky

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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