Ivan the Terrible
Liubov Sokolova, mezzo
Nikolai Putilin, baritone
Chorus of the Kirov Opera
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Philips 475 7778 Total Time: 64.50
Summary for the Busy Executive: Exciting, and deep - in spite of itself.
For me, Eisenstein reached his peak as a filmmaker with his massive Ivan
the Terrible. However, it does seem practically overwhelmed in its own
weirdness. First and foremost, the actors take on animal personae: Ivan
becomes a giant bird of prey, the head opritchnik a faithful dog, the
chief plotter against Ivan a reptile, and so on. Eisenstein had the
good fortune to collaborate with his favorite film composer, Prokofiev,
on the score. They really did collaborate, to the point where they
planned to reuse the script and music for an opera on the same subject.
Eisenstein's ideas were grand: three feature-length movies on the tsar.
During World War II, the project (seen by the authorities as another
hymn to Stalin) got full backing. Eisenstein managed to complete two
parts of the trilogy. After the war, Stalin's terror once again fell
upon the state, and Stalin himself resumed meddling in the arts. The
third movie never got made, perhaps because it wasn't unmitigated praise.
Even so, one sycophantic Soviet composer got into trouble for such a
Lobgesang, when he unwittingly chose a subject about a man Stalin had
killed. At any rate, the opera plans vanished along with the final part
of the trilogy. Prokofiev put his score away and resolved never to write
for another film.
Prokofiev had earlier achieved a breakthrough in film music with his
score to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, a score enormously influential
internationally. You can, for example, hear echoes of Nevsky's "Battle
on the Ice" in Walton's "Battle of Agincourt" for Olivier's Henry V.
Prokofiev then recast the film sequences into his Alexander Nevsky
cantata, one of his greatest and most enduring Soviet successes. In my
opinion, Ivan the Terrible contains even better music, just as the film
improves upon Nevsky. The composer integrates more strongly image and
music, and the themes are both more complex and more beautiful. Indeed,
the music warms the film. It grants the grotesques some modicum of
So why didn't Prokofiev do the same for Ivan? Why did he leave it in
a drawer? I strongly suspect he didn't want to fight it out. He was a
sick man in 1948 and after the Zhdanov decree condemning him, Shostakovich,
Khachaturian, and Kabalevsky, among others, he sincerely wished to provide
what the government required. Although he didn't seem to realize it,
it was a mug's game. "Socialist Realism" was less an aesthetic doctrine
than an excuse for political bullying, and in 1948 government officials
catered to Stalin's increasing paranoia. Prokofiev in this final period
(after the disastrous rejection of his opera The Story of a Real Man)
concentrated on instrumental works instead. He died in 1953, ironically
on the same day as Stalin.
In 1961, Alexander Stasevich took on the job Prokofiev never lived to
start and arranged the film score into a Nevsky-like cantata. Nevsky
concentrates its dramatic power. Ivan in comparison seems diffuse, but
individual numbers to me surpass Nevsky. Nevsky, with the exception of
"The Field of the Dead" aria, paints broad strokes, while Ivan deals in
shades. Compare the wham-wham patriotic ending of Nevsky with the quiet
tragedy of Ivan's "The Tartar Steppes." We don't know, of course, what
if anything Prokofiev would have done differently than Stasevich, but
in any case I'm grateful for Stasevich's labors.
I've known the piece from an old EMI recording with, I believe, Vladimir
Fedoseyev conducting. A two-record set, it contained not only the music,
but a speaker part. Unless you speak Russian, you won't miss it, and
the remainder fits nicely on one CD. Gergiev does his usual slam-bang,
but Ivan can take it (Prokofiev's symphonies can't, and I strongly
recommend that you avoid Gergiev's recordings of these). To me, Gergiev
is a cruder Solti, although I've loved his recordings of the lesser-known
Russian operas (his Boris disappoints big-time). He seems to lose
attention over long symphonic spans in favor of moment-to-moment jolts.
Ivan has some of those spans, but overall it proceeds in short bursts.
Consequently, it plays to Gergiev's strengths. You don't want a tasteful
Ivan the Terrible anyway. The sound is ringing and clear.
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