Digital Downloads: Reference Recordings – Prokofiev – Alexander Nevsky, Lieutenant Kijé Suite

Any Russian composer who got through the Great War and the revolution, then received permission to leave the Motherland and work abroad for more than a dozen years before returning home to acclaim… is a composer I’d loved to have had the opportunity to talk with while we washed down rye bread with cold vodka sitting on a blanket overlooking the Volga.

Unfortunately, the only time machines I have are digital and analog-music based, and I was born 70 years too late to make a lunch date with Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev, whose 1933 film score epic Lieutenant Kijé heralded the lead-up to his full-time return to Russia in 1936, and along with the 1938 work Alexander Nevsky are the subject of today’s review.

Reference Recordings worked with Thierry Fischer, the music director of the Utah Symphony, and enlisted mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, the Utah Symphony Chorus, the University of Utah A Cappella Choir and University of Utah Chamber Choir along with recording producer Dirk Sobotka, recording engineer John Newton with mixing and mastering by Mark Donahue to capture the suites live at Maurice Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah on November 18 and 19, 2016 in a Pyramix DSD256 recording via Merging Technologies Horus digital converter.

I was given access to download the 24-bit/192kHz WAV files of Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky – Lieutenant Kijé Suite for listening, and was immediately blown away at the lack of any compression artefacting on the tracks – this recording sounds like it has a mile of dynamic headroom built into it. Regardless of whether I played it on my main two-channel rig via Roon (Roon Nucleus+, totaldac d1-direct, McIntosh 2600 tubed preamplifier, MC601 mono blocs into Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers) a pair of B+W Formation Duos hooked up downstairs, or through an Astell&Kern SR15 juicing HIFIMAN HE1000se headphones, the sound was expansive, timbrally and tonally rich throughout the frequency bandwidth with no peaky highs or muddy lows. Bass was stygian, with clearly-defined textures to notes between the lowest octaves sharing a deep 3-D sound stage alongside detailed, resolution-oriented highs that remained sweet without etching. Midrange was transcriptive with punchiness and swagger to the playing throughout the suites. Lots of emphasis on transient-speed capabilities in your sytem while playing this recording.

There is so much wood-bodied instrument tension built up in the opening cut – “Russia Under Mongolian Tyranny” – that the violins, violas, cellos and bass come across as emotionally fraught and you cannot help but feel yourself swept along as if by the undercurrents of some vast, unfolding historic event playing out symphonically all around you. Unforgivingly cold cymbal splashes interplay with woeful oboe, bassoon, horn, English horn and tuba to create chilling textures of portence without ever becoming digitally calculating. Instead, managing to maintain an analog warmth which bursts forth with deep percussive blooms as the second track “Song of Alexander Nevsky” opens itself onto the darkened sonic palette with the uplifting plateau of dozens of choir voices becoming unbottled with patriotic fervor.

“The Crusade in Pskov” has a chest-rattling timpani opening and is sure to fill the air of your listening room with the electric-tinged odour of burnt dust if, perhaps, the crossovers of your speakers (like mine) struggled to mete out their assigned signals to the bass drivers of my two-channel rig in a most excursion-heavy load… I kept looking around wondering where the smell was coming from (Am I having a stroke?), only to surmise that 600-watt mono blocs can push any speaker to its limits even under (what I thought was) judiciously volume-controlled playback (apparently it was not). If you really want to give your transducers – the whole signal pathway – an oscillatory workout of a magnitude I’ve not often experienced so consistantly in playback, then this is the recording to do it with. Cuts like ‘The Battle on The Ice” reminded me of fight scenes from films of my youth like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with dynamic bursts that I found would make excellent tests for the current transformer’s ability to recharge caps being drained in your amplifier(s) by the extreme transients.

I’m not an expert on classical recordings by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like to think I know great music when I hear it, and this is a great set of classical works in my opinion. This is what I would describe as an iconoclastic recording. It’s bombastic. It wants to tear down the foundations of your sound system with the raw power of flesh, blood and the tides of history writ emotionally through music.

Like every Reference Recording LP or download I’ve bought or heard, it’s beautifully recorded and mastered; full of resolution, tonal/timbral color and accuracy, incredible dynamics, explosive transient power and draws you into the music as only the best albums can. It has unusual time signatures and dissonant harmonies that keep you off balance and always keenly listening to every change-up. If you’ve not gotten into classical – for whatever reasons – this would be the one album I’d recommend to buy to dip your toes in (so to speak). It is as punk rock as I imagine classical can get and from what I’ve read, Prokofiev was regarded as eccentric, arrogant and talented from the get go, trying to jam through his first symphony at the age of 11 while still being tutored. Like I said earlier, anyone who’d been through what he had, never mind grabbing for the brass ring of music writing while not even a tween, is someone who’d I’d love to have spent time with over great food and drinks. I’d say the same for this album, get it and you’ll want to spend more time with it.

Reference Recordings
P.O. BOX 77225 SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94107