What do you do for an encore after you've performed the "1812" Overture? For the rest of this week, following the "1812" it played Monday night to celebrate Armand Hammer's birthday, the National Symphony is featuring a battle piece more spectacular than Tchaikovsky's, even though it lacks artillery: The Battle on the Ice that comes as the climax of Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky."
It begins with ominous rumbles in the low strings, shot through with little flashing motifs in the high strings and brass that might be random shafts of sunlight reflecting off the armor of the Teutonic Knights marching and later galloping across an ice-covered lake, while a Russian army moves toward them from the opposite bank. The German invaders sing a Latin hymn as they advance and the pace quickens inexorably in a long crescendo and accelerando, tension building to an almost unbearable point until the two armies clash and pandemonium sets in.
This small tone poem is one of the most vivid descriptive pieces in music, written as a film soundtrack but fully able to generate its own pictures without the aid of a projector and screen. It is the kind of music Mstislav Rostropovich does almost uniquely well, and while it was performing this last night at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra sounded like one of the world's best.
But the battle scene is merely the most spectacular section of an epic composition that is also a sort of secular cantata on the love of the motherland, the sorrow and glory of fighting and dying to defend those you love, the anguish of domination by foreign invaders, and--really the purpose of it all--the danger of invading Russia, particularly the danger to Germans. Prokofiev's composition and Eisenstein's movie were in part an expression of Soviet policy in the mid-'30s, before Stalin signed his pact with Hitler and anti-German movies suddenly became almost treasonous. But if they were tools of a cynical dictator's ambitions, the movie and its soundtrack were also works of art, sincerely felt by the makers and still a moving experience nearly half a century later in a society that has relegated Stalin to history's trashpile.
At the end, when the recurring chorale motif comes back in its final variation, the effect is almost that of the strong, four-square Lutheran chorales that Bach used to end most of his cantatas, though Bach would never have dreamed of Prokofiev's harmony and orchestration. It may be propaganda, but it is also holy in a way, as anything can be holy if it truly expresses love.
There is an electricity in the music, from its opening notes (a deep groan, expressing the burden of foreign domination), through a choral song about the hero Alexander Nevsky, the brutal portrait of the German invaders laying waste to the land, and the stirring cry to the Russian people to rise and defend themselves. After the climactic battle scene, it is hard to imagine anything that would not be an anticlimax, but Prokofiev found a solution: a long and beautiful alto solo (sung by Lili Chookasian last night) in which a Russian maiden wanders across the corpse-strewn battlefield looking for the body of her lover. It is not only a moment of quiet relief from the action and tension that precede it, but a pointed commentary on the other side of the glamor of battle. It is hard to imagine a more moving performance than Chookasian's with the National Symphony, the tone pure and rich, the voice giving hints of endless depth, the words proud, soothing, compassionate and infinitely sad.
In this music, the NSO touched greatness; the accents were vivid and precisely timed, the brass glittered and the strings sang (though a bit more strength in the violins would have been appreciated in a few places). The Choral Arts Society fully matched the orchestra's virtuosity: Textures were beautifully balanced and the singers' discipline was total, togetherness absolute. There are a few bars where one wishes that Norman Scribner could have brought in a few Russian bassos, who are capable of producing a kind of sound unavailable to any other voice, but those moments are rare and fleeting and this chorus did as well as any Americans could have been expected to do.
The price paid for the glory of Prokofiev last night was the muddle of Brahms. His Fourth Symphony is a work too vast and complex to be sight-read even by a virtuoso orchestra, but there were times when it sounded like an attempt was being made. In general, the playing improved as the symphony progressed, at least up to the third movement, which was quite incisive. But there were occasional moments when the music sounded suspiciously like Tchaikovsky and the overall effect of last night's interpretation sounded like a series of colorful episodes separated by less interesting material. This interpretation should improve steadily until the final performance Friday night, with each new reading serving as a sort of advanced rehearsal. But perhaps something less demanding should have been selected to share the program with the very demanding Prokofiev.
The program opened with the U.S. premiere of Walton's Prologo e Fantasia, which was commissioned by the NSO and had its world premiere in London during the orchestra's European tour. It is a bright, pleasant, well-wrought work built in a series of ascending climaxes with interesting material leading up to each peak. It is well suited to Rostropovich's strengths and the orchestra made it sound splendid.