This was a very interesting listening experience. I picked up the Gergiev recording a few months ago and enjoyed it very much. My only comparison, however, was Stokowski's live performance on Music and Arts, which I feel is among the best (nla). I felt, however, that before writing a review I should listen to another recording of the Nevsky. Since this year is the 50th anniversary of the composer's death I guessed there would be other recordings as well. Sure enough the Naxos release came out and I requested a copy.
When it arrived I decided to listen to it before going back to the Philips disc. I noticed that Russia under the Mongolian Yoke was twice as long as Gergiev or Stokowski took it. Almost four minutes. I wondered about that. I listened to that section and was blown away. I even checked the timing to see if there had been a misprint. It certainly didn't sound slow. The solo clarinet in particular had a poignant feel to it and held that final note longer as it faded out. The sound was almost audiophile, and then came the rest. It sounded like it was recorded at a different time. It was more distant; the chorus in particular was hard to hear. It is a puzzle. The sound rendered the whole thing dull and that is something this music should not be.
So, I put on the Gergiev recording. He takes the first segment, as I said, faster and I have to admit that I think the slower time, if it has the necessary tension, works better. The recorded sound is very natural and warm. It performance so much more moving, emotional, and involving that it is almost a different piece of music. The Battle on the Ice is hair-raising. Borodina's singing in The Field of the Dead conveys the sorrow of loss in a way that makes you believe she has actually witnessed such carnage. Time and again as I listened to this recording I found myself looking up at the speakers and muttering things like "wow" or "damn that's good". There may be better recordings or performances out there but I certainly don't know of any.
Now for the extras: the items on the Naxos disc are interesting and consistently well recorded. On the other hand, I doubt you would buy it for them. The Scythian Suite is exciting and Gergiev brings all of the emotions you would expect. The writer of the notes obviously doesn't care for this music and I wonder why a company would pay someone to write notes about music he doesn't care for. Otherwise the notes are okay although Richard Whitehouse's for Naxos are better. I also prefer the English translation in the Naxos disc.
What recommendation do I have? Get them both. It would be an educational experience and given the low price of the Naxos disc well worth it. Besides, the first section is fantastic and you may well disagree with me about the rest. If, however, you can get only one get the Gergiev. This conductor consistently produces fantastic music unlike anyone since the days of Stokowski, Beecham and Barbirolli. I believe he will go down as one of the greats of this century.
Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II