Serge Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein working on "Ivan the Terrible". 1943.
Prokofiev's score to the two-part Sergei Eisenstein film, Ivan the Terrible, despite its many beautiful and sensitive moments, is a music that exudes raucous masculine camaraderie; march-on-your-enemies music; throw-your-vodka-glass-against-the-fireplace music.
So, when I heard it was being performed June 14, 15 and 16 in Baltimore, USA, with no less than Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, I had to fly to that tough, Gothic city in order to have some questions answered. How does the chorus perform The Oath of the Oprichniki, with its impassioned shouts and clashing pikes, while rigidly posed in formal dress? How does one perform the insane, drunken Dance of the Oprichniki without dancing frantically?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the stage of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was barely big enough for the enlarged orchestra, male and female chorus, Bass singer, Vladimir Ognovenko; Mezzo-Soprano, Irina Chistjakova and Narrator, Stephen Schmidt.
The stage looked like a beehive amidst the sensuous, undulating curves of the cream-and-coffee coloured hall.
This performance was, of course, the 1962 Abram Stasevich oratorio version of Ivan. Prokofiev, no doubt disgusted and disheartened by Stalin's condemnation of Part 2 of the 1942-1945 film, as well as the death in 1948 of friend and colleague Eisenstein, never wrote a suite or cantata for the music score. There is now a Nimbus CD with Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra playing the entire (one hour and forty minute) score, which is quite enlightening to hear. It makes clear that the music does need some condensing and rearranging to make it a tight performance piece, and that Stasevich made enough changes that one can no longer call this music all-Prokofiev. His whole concept of adding an orator, interrupting and sometimes--unforgivably--talking over the music has neve appealed to me.
In this performance the narration was in English while the lyrics thankfully remained in Russian with supertitles to translate them. Narrator Schmidt affected a stern visage and never broke character. Even when not speaking he sat with furrowed brow and pursed lips, head cocked toward some far, grim horizon; provoking the occasional giggle from some members of the orchestra. He was the only performer who seemed to capture the playful sense of satire that lurks beneath the blood-and -guts lyrics.
Temirkanov, in his long frock coat and with his sweeping baton-less gestures looked like a cross between an itinerant circuit preacher and Gustav Mahler. He led the BSO in a swift, clean, spirited performance emphasizing the brass and dissonance. Starting with an unusually slow and ominous beginning, the exciting Siege of Kazan movement turned into a protracted staccato, a very dramatic rendering.
The chorus was extremely powerful and did not let the unfamiliar Russian tongue slow them down.
Ms Chistjakova, the mezzo-soprano, seemed a little weak to me and, for some reason, sang only Ocean-Sea, leaving out Song about the Beaver (called Efrosinja's Lullaby in the program notes.) Maybe she was feeling bad.
Ognovenko's rendering of the Song of Feodor Basmanov was slow, threatening and ponderous with none of the sense of drunken satire found in some versions and--for that matter--the film itself
But these are insignificant complaints. This performance was a thrilling, earth-shattering rendition of a too-neglected operatic jewel of film music and symphonic propaganda. The audience and the Baltimore Sun music critic, Tim Smith, seemed to think so too.
Judging from the caricature T-shirts of Temirkanov for sale in the lobby, the glowing comments of patrons and press and the roaring ovation for the Friday night performance of Ivan, the people of Baltimore have taken their "Yuri" into their salty, no-nonsense hearts.
Bringing rarely-performed works such as this to American audiences, as well as his RCA recording of On Guard for Peace (with Shostakovich's Song of the Forest), puts this student of Mravinsky and director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Baltimore Symphony into the forefront as a worthy friend and interpreter of the music of Prokofiev and 20th Century Russian music in general.
Robert E. Jordan