Nevsky

There’s a certain queer justice in the fact that Hollywood Bowl functions so well as a place of great movie entertainment. The look of the place, with its Art Deco designs still the dominant motif, brings back memories of great movie palaces of the past; then, when the orchestra plays, you can shut your eyes halfway and dream of Radio City Music Hall or the Roxy or…
“Alexander Nevsky” looked and sounded just splendid at the Bowl on Thursday night. This is the same new¬† print now in circulation for two years — but still, alas, not available on video — marvelously restored by John Goberman to vivid black-and-white values that refresh but still preserve Sergei Eisenstein’s original vision, and with the entirety of Sergei Prokofiev’s score played live by orchestra, chorus and solo mezzo-soprano. We saw it first at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in November, 1987; that occasion was thrilling enough. At the Bowl, in that stupendous visual setting, it was even more so.
I have heard¬† arguments against this kind of restoration. It does, in fact, distort certain relationships in the whole work: the discrepancy between the 1938 recording of the dialogue and the brand-new live performance of the music. Prokofiev, we know, had it in mind to create a musical counterpart to Eisenstein’s epic film, not merely an accompaniment. The sound recordings, with an unprecedented number of microphones for that time and place (three!), were personally supervised by the composer. Why, then, tamper? Isn’t this just another case of that horrid colorization?
It’s a good point, but the nature of this one film tells me otherwise. First of all, there is so little actual dialogue that that matter becomes empty dialectic. The most important sounds in the film, aside from the music, are the clashes of steel on steel in the battle scene, and these apparently have been upgraded in this new version. Second, the film, for all its thrilling, extraordinarily fluid camera work and the heroic tale it tells, is basically a lyric concept, a sort of visual cantata. Prokofiev’s music tells us that; time after time the form of that music, the manner in which an extended musical episode returns after contrasting material as in a symphonic movement, controls the way we view the story line.
Why, then, perpetuate the technically inadequate recording results of Eisenstein’s primitive sound equipment when a satisfactory alternative exists? Isn’t this more like trying to perpetuate the windup Victrola? If anything, the sonic upgrading of Prokofiev’s stupendous rhetoric places it, for the first time, on a par with the depth and resonance of Eisenstein’s camera, the incredible sense of composition in his unforgettable scenes.
So there was this glorious piece of political poster-work, flung most satisfactorily onto a big screen hung from Frank Gehry’s acoustical paraphernalia, with Yuri Temirkhanov, the Philharmonic, the Master Chorale and Christine Cairns splendidly involved in the roaring oratory of Prokofiev’s great score, not only the later concert version but the whole shebang It made for a fine evening. It left questions, in fact, as to why this kind of entertainment isn’t given more often at the Bowl.
Recently some of the great silent masterpieces — von Stroheim’s “Greed” for one, and the Griffith “Intolerance,” have been decked out with new scores to be played live by large orchestras. I saw the “Intolerance” three summers ago, outdoors at Avignon, and I still quiver from the experience. I call this urgently to the attention of Hollywood Bowl’s ruling spirits. Where better than there?