PROKOFIEV: Ivan the Terrible / Irina Christjakova, alto; Dmitry Stephanovich, bass; The Yurlov State Capella; Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond / Nimbus NI5662
Unlike Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky, which was tidied up by the composer in a wonderful orchestral suite (with contralto solos), his score for Ivan the Terrible, longer, more complex and in many cases resistant to condensation in a suite, remained on the print of the film. Although Sergei Eisenstein was able to release Part 1 during the 1940s, Part 2 was held up by the Soviet censors because they felt that his portrayal of Ivan’s descent into madness would be seen by the public as a parallel to Stalin (who, ironically, admired Ivan). When Eisenstein replied, in so many words, that he didn’t really care about Stalin, that his purpose was to portray a psychological picture of a man descending into insanity, he got in more trouble for saying he didn’t care about Stalin. The upshot of all this was that the full film wasn’t released until 1958, by which time Prokofiev, Eisenstein and Stalin were all dead.
Thus what we generally hear under the title Ivan the Terrible was arranged in 1962 by Abram Stasevich, condensing the score into about an hour’s worth of music, some of it truncated, sometimes with a narrator and sometimes without. This recording, made in 2000, was the first to draw on the new edition of the score from 1997 collating all that survived by Prokofiev. In addition, Fedoseyev included about 18 minutes’ worth of music from the Russian Orthodox Liturgy that was actually sung in the film but not written by Prokofiev. I think this is not only appropriate but necessary, since Prokofiev knew they were being inserted and adjusted his own music before and after those passages to complement them. To my knowledge, the only other recording to use all this music is the Chandos version conducted by Valeri Polyanski, issued three years later.
But this is the performance to get. Fedoseyev digs into the music with muscle and grit, his chorus sounds as if their lives depended on giving their all (including those wonderful Russian basses that sound like didgeridoos), the end result being a performance that leaps out of your speakers and grabs you by the throat.
I’ve listened to this performance three times now, and each time I hear it it makes an impact. Unlike any other well-known composer who wrote film music, Prokofiev took his work very seriously. He wasn’t interested in just creating a “mood” behind the visual scenes projected onto the screen, but rather of reacting to those scenes by writing real art music that was not just moving but also creative and powerful. In a certain sense, all his film scores have a closer kinship to such operas as Boris Godunov or even (in a different style) Wozzeck.
Which is not to say that the music is as continuous as either Boris or Wozzeck, although within each scene Prokofiev worked hard to produce musical continuity. Yet the different character of each scene meant a slightly different style of writing. Most of the Wedding Scene, up until the section titled “The Wedding Riot,” is lighter in character than the scenes depicting Ivan, the Opritchniks and the battles, and the scene concerning Ivan’s illness and the death of Anastasia are also considerably different, the latter being the most tender and touching in the entire score. There are, in fact, several musical resemblances between parts of this music and his ballet Romeo and Juliet (i.e., “At the Polish Court” and “Orderly Dance”). One of the most impressive moments in the score is when Prokofiev combines the savage-sounding “Oath of the Opritchniks” with the famous Russian hymn “God Save the Czar,” the same tune Tchaikovsky used for the opening of his 1812 Overture, and then combines it with the blazing brass finale. A stroke of genius.
And Fedoseyev approaches each part of the score with a fresh mind and an evident desire to impress the listener with the alternate beauty and savageness of it. Absolutely none of this performance coasts on autopilot; it all comes from the heart and the gut. The Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, apparently the modern-day version of the old USSR Radio and TV Orchestra led by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in the 1960s and ‘70s, has that wonderfully edgy sound to it that only Russian orchestras can produce: a bright, razor-sharp upper range and a hefty, muscular low range that pushes the music forward with the force of a steamroller. And holy crap, the chorus is absolutely wonderful. Take that, you historically-informed nutcases with your MIDI-like choirs!
As for the two soloists, they are for the most part quite good. Basso Dmitry Stephanovich has a rich and surprisingly smooth voice, almost a bass-baritone, singing his Coronation Scene solo with a luxuriant tone and the “Song of the Opritchniks” with an appropriately rougher, peasant-like timbre. Contralto Irina Christjakova’s voice is so deep and rich that when she starts out in “The Azure Main,” you almost think it’s a tenor singing. Her one drawback is her Slavic vibrato. It’s not too bad in “The Azure Main,” but in her later “Song about the Beaver,” it becomes looser, rougher and more annoying. For this portion of the score only, I inserted the great Irina Arkhipova singing from the Riccardo Muti recording.
The music depicting battles and the Opritchniks is almost as raw as in the Scythian Suite, which may scare the poop out of non-Slavic listeners, but if you’re game for a profoundly moving and exciting experience, this is a recording you need to get.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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