Charles Petzold

“Alexander Nevsky” In Concert

October 20, 2006
New York, NY

I'm not fond of concert gimmicks, but this one sounded too fun to pass up: The New York Philharmonic playing Prokofiev's score for the Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky in synchronization with the actual movie.

Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky in 1938, based on a real-life 13th century Russian prince who drove away Teutonic invaders. Stalin wanted the film made to warn people of the threats posed to Russia by the German military. When the Soviet/German non-aggression pact was signed shortly after the film was released, the film was shelved, but then re-released widely in 1941.

Unfortunately, the optical sound track of the original film didn't reproduce Prokofiev's score very well. (But I'm sure the version I saw in a theater in the late 70s didn't sound as bad as the one posted on Google video.) Apparently about 10 years ago, somebody stripped out the music track from a copy of the film and then rerecorded it for a DVD release, also making it possible for orchestras to do what the NY Philharmonic did last night (and will do again tonight and Saturday).

The stage at Avery Fisher Hall was set up fairly normally. About a hundred members of the New York Choral Artists occupied seats at the rear of the stage. (The score has major choral parts.) The major oddity was the large movie screen suspended from the ceiling and positioned somewhat in front of the chorus. Also, conductor Xian Zhang had two small video screens set up near her podium, apparently so she could keep the orchestra properly synchronized. We sat in the rear of the second tier, but had no problem reading the subtitles.

Prokofiev's music starts off strong and evocative of some ancient time, but the movie itself starts off weakly, I think. Everything seems oddly framed. Eisenstein has a tendency in this film to cluster his actors at the bottom of the screen so he can show lots of scenery or medieval architecture or just plain sky. But either I got used to it, or something else happened, because by the time the Germans started committing atrocities — in a particularly unnerving scene, they toss two babies into a bonfire — I was hooked. Several shots just take your breath away — I'm thinking particularly of a large bell surrounded by torches streaming black smoke, and a shot of two small boats half submerged in a frozen lake.

Prokofiev's music reaches a frenzy in the build up to the famous "Battle on the Ice" sequence on the frozen Lake Chudskoye, as Eisenstein slowly reveals the full numbers of the extras he has hired for the two opposing armies. As the two armies meet, the music stops, so we can now hear the vicious and unrelenting clash of swords and axes. Directors in 1938 hadn't yet started showing flying heads and other body parts, but the violence is effective (perhaps more effective?) nonetheless. Of course, a director isn't going to go to the trouble to stage a battle on the ice and then keep the surface frozen for the entire duration.

My favorite part of Prokofiev's score is just after that battle. The camera surveys the dead and dying and those surprised to be alive, while on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady enters and sings of the soldiers.

Alexander Nevsky is interesting not only because of Eisenstein's direction and Prokofiev's score, but from an historical perspective as a piece of unabashed pre-war propaganda. Towards the end of the movie, Alexander Nevsky turns to the camera and warns anyone who might be tempted to invade Russia that "Those who come to us with a sword shall die from the sword!" Germany invaded anyway, and about 23 million Soviet citizens and military personnel died in the war.