What Mr Stalin wants, Mr Stalin gets

It looked the dream ticket: Eisenstein to shoot the film, Prokofiev to write the score. Enter Stalin, as producer. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
Question: What were the two Sergeis - Eisenstein and Prokofiev - doing in Moscow in the long hot summer of 1938? Answer: making a snow- and-ice spectacular, which was also the world's first music video. This is not how they saw it at the time, but if they'd lived to see their work being deconstructed and then brilliantly reconstructed, they would undoubtedly have given their approval to the video of Alexander Nevsky released this month.

The film's beginnings were auspicious. Both artists were fresh from Hollywood, where Prokofiev had spent happy months picking up ideas on the sound stages of Disney. Eisenstein had only made silents, and saw music as an exhilarating challenge. They admired each other's work, and both needed to find a path through the thicket of Soviet cultural policy, which condemned chamber music, for example, as "an unrealistic, self-limiting form".

A dream ticket? No, a nightmare. Stalin wanted a patriotic film, and the story of Prince Alexander of Novgorod, who with his army of peasants saved his country from the Teutonic infidels in 1240, seemed tailor-made for 1938. Nevsky could stand neatly for Stalin. The pair worked round the clock, until one night, while Eisenstein was asleep in the editing- room, word came that the film had to be brought to Stalin for approval.

The dictator liked it. Unfortunately, however, it was incomplete. So great was Eisenstein's fear that a further request for approval might end badly, that he decided to cut his losses, and release it as it was.

In the spring of 1939, Prokofiev conducted the Moscow Philharmonic in the first performance of a new version he had made of his film score, for orchestra, chorus and mezzo-soprano. Known as the Alexander Nevsky Cantata, this became a regular part of the standard symphonic repertoire.

Fifty years on, an American producer called John Goberman took a cool look at the original film. The best film score ever written, he concluded, had been turned into the worst film score ever recorded. This was due largely to Prokofiev's primitive techniques, using a small orchestra and sticking the mikes in the direction of the instruments he wanted to highlight. But the "natural" sound was primitive too: when a horse skidded into a heap on the ice, it sounded like a sack of potatoes dumped on a table.

Realising that the Cantata contained virtually all the musical ideas of the film, Goberman used it to reconstruct a new score that could be performed by symphony orchestra and chorus as a live accompaniment to screenings of the film. He has now completed the process by matching this new score to a cleaned-up print for video release.

Yuri Temirkanov conducts, with the St Petersburg Philharmonic, whose performance follows the sweep of the film without being slavishly locked into a second-by-second synchronisation with it.

There are strong echoes of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in this score. Exhilarating passages on woodwind and brass accompany the Russo-German conflicts, just as they do the conflicts of the Montagues and Capulets. Great blasts of sound urge on the acts of pillage. A lugubrious anthem accompanies the carnage as the Germans burn men, women and children at the stake. It's intensely operatic. For one astonishing 11-minute sequence, the two armies slug it out on a frozen lake while the orchestra falls silent: it's like a battle-scene from Kurosawa's Lear-retelling Ran. Subtitles underline the plot's risibly crude nationalism, but the film is saved by its sheer visual grandeur.

And by its music. As its conductor points out: "This film is being brought back now purely on account of its score. That is an indication of its power."

n The CD, video and laser disc releases of `Alexander Nevsky' are out on RCA Victor Red Seal