Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Ivan the Terrible*.
*Irina Arkhipova (mezzo-soprano);
Anatoly Mokrenko (baritone); Boris Morgunov (narrator), Ambrosian Chorus
and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Ricardo
(mezzo-soprano) London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by André
Previn.(with Sergei Rachmaninov's The Bells).
Sheila Armstrong (soprano); Robert Tear (tenor); John Shirley-Quirk
London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André
EMI double forte 2 CDs
CZS5 73353 2
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This is a very clever idea to package Prokofiev's two major film scores together
in this budget presentation and I urge all adventurous lovers of film music
who are unfamiliar with this music to invest in this 2CD album. However I
would add one caveat. Budget prices often mean sacrifices; and the sweeping
marketing policy of EMI to pare down the notes for their mid-price/budget
albums is a grave mistake as far as this reissue is concerned for no librettos
are given. This might not be so serious with Alexander Nevsky
but it is a grave omission as far as Ivan the Terrible is concerned,
which occupies the whole of CD1 in this set, because there is a considerable
narrative spoken in Russian. Clearly without a translation one is listening
very much blind and this film is rarely screened or transmitted. Given some
of the 26 numbers/movements have reasonably descriptive titles like: 'The
Gunners' or 'The Storming of Kazan' but what are we to make of others like
'The Swan', and 'Ocean'?
Lest I deter prospective purchasers, I hasten to add that this music can
be very much enjoyed for its own sake (see review that follows).
[Suggestion to EMI: Print the words and include a little form with
the CD inviting purchasers to apply for them at a reasonable price like
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Sergei Eisenstein's classic film of Alexander Nevsky dates from 1938
and, incredibly, Prokofiev composed the music at breakneck speed in a matter
of days (presumably the very complex orchestrations took longer?). The story
is based on the Russian defence of Novgorod in 1242, in which the invading
Knights of the Teutonic Order were held at bay most spectacularly during
a battle on the frozen waters of Lake Chud.
In 1939 Prokofiev reassembled his Alexander Nevsky music in the form of a
'cantata' expressly for concert performance. As such it has proved extremely
popular and is often performed. It is this cantata which is presented here.
This 1971 André Previn recording made in the splendid acoustic of
London's Kingsway Hall is magnificent and stunningly thrilling.
The opening movement is entitled 'Russia under the Mongolian Yolk' and it
is a vivid example of Prokofiev's very individual style. The mood is suitably
mournful and oppressive, and an extraordinary combination of (I think) bass
clarinet and tuba produces a forbidding tone that seems to speak at the same
time of those that crush and the crushed.
The following 'Song of Alexander Nevsky' begins with despairing voices until
the tempo picks up and the mood turns to one of defiance. The next movement
is another vivid evocation - 'The Crusaders in Pskov'. You can visualise
the heavily armoured Teutonic Knights with their dauntingly huge helmets.
The crushing music, with heavy drums and cymbal crashes, speaks of their
cruelty and barbarism. In response, the voices of the people turn from submission
to revolt but the movement ends with a welcome moment of tenderness from
the violins. 'Arise, Ye Russian People' is a fine noble tune with voices
supported by colourful orchestrations that include bells and xylophone.
But the most significant movement, and the most memorable, is the celebrated
14-minute 'The Battle on the Ice.' It begins with a wintry scene: the chill
is palpable with icy trumpets and shivering cellos. Swirling strings invite
you to picture frosty beards of mist swirling over the surface of the Lake.
Then you hear the Knights approaching from a distance. First, at a slow canter.
Listen their pace quickens, now they are charging. Prokofiev sounds the chink
of spurs, the clatter of armour - and the creaking, snapping breaking of
ice as the Knights are confounded. This whole episode is a marvellous crescendo
utterly thrilling with the voices adding power and dramatic tension. Combat,
chaos, victory and exultation!
The mood of final minutes of the movement is echoed in the subsequent movement,
'The Field of the Dead'. First we hear a beautiful limpid melody with liquid
strings gently eddying, abbing and flowing; its as if we have been transported
to the Elysian Fields. Then comes a poignant elegy with an affecting solo
sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Reynolds. The cantata ends with the resounding
celebratory 'Alexander's Entry into Pskov' to the sound of many bells.
Ivan the Terrible (1942 -1944 and 1945-1946)
Following the success of Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein was keen to employ
Prokofiev on his 1942 blockbuster epic, Ivan the Terrible. The film
was based on the life of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia whose reign (1547-84) was
marked by a great progress in terms of political reform - but at a price.
Those who dissented were dealt with severely, as in 1570 when he had thousands
of people slaughtered in Novgorod (on very flimsy evidence) believing they
were not among his keenest supporters. The film was made in two parts; part
two began shooting in 1946. Part One had been awarded a Stalin Prize but
the follow-up was denied a public showing on Stalin's express orders. It
is believed Stalin strongly identified himself with Ivan, and had no desire
to be reminded of the atrocities that characterised the latter half of his
reign. And so Ivan the Terrible did not receive a complete screening
until 1958, five years after Stalin's and Prokofiev's deaths, and ten after
Concert-goers had to wait for their first taste of this huge score until
Alexander Stasevich reassembled Prokofiev's incidental music in the form
of an 'oratorio' in 1961.
Ricardo Muti's recording is -- to use that overworked phrase -- absolutely
stunning, it reaches out at you and grasps you and holds you from first to
last (narration frustrations, see above, notwithstanding). The work is divided
into 26 sections, most averaging 2½ minutes but with a central section
of two major dramatic episodes: The Storming of Kazan (9:47); and 'Ivan's
Appeal to the Boyars' (8:06). These two numbers (as do others) display a
keen sense of the theatrical. The shorter preceding cue 'The Gunners', is
noble and patriotic and forceful with brisk staccato combative material against
tolling bells but there is also typical Slav melancholy and nostalgia. 'The
Storming of Kazan' opens with trudging tuba figures, snare drumings and bass
drum booms as though a heavy canon was being trundled into position. Then
trombones snarl before the voices of the besieged(?) people are heard in
hymn-like tones, the music, for a while, turning pastoral/mystical. But soon
battle commences with raging trumpets, bass drum thuds crashing gongs and
cymbals and the music becomes increasingly frantic - tremendously exciting
stuff! 'Ivan's Appeal' that follows mixes tension with tenderness. Impassioned
strings mix with consolatory choruses.
Another spectacular number is 'I will be Tsar!' with huge cymbal crashes
and choruses of big bells. This huge, theatrical set piece rivals the Coronation
Scene from Mussorgsky's Coronation Scene from Boris Gudunov! 'March of the
Young Ivan' is another spectacular but here the choral and orchestral music
after a heroic quick march, takes a decidedly unpleasant turn, all snide,
wheedling and barbaric, revealing the less attractive side of Ivan's character.
This is just another example of Prokofiev's skill in vivid portrait painting
using just a splash of quirky colouring. Calmer material (but working up
to a thunderous climax) comes in the number entitled 'Ocean' with Irina Arkhipova
and choir intoning above impressionistic orchestral tissues. 'Celebration
Song' is more restrained than its title might suggest, this is one of the
warmest and most compassionate numbers in the work.
Rachmaninov - The Bells
Rachmaninov's Choral Symphony, The Bells, could equally have been
recommended listening when the composer was featured recently in 'If Only
They Had Scored For Films', on Film Music on the Web, for this work is another
powerful and vivid set of evocations.
Rachmaninov himself, in describing this work, remarked how the sound of bells
dominated life in Russia. He had settled with his family in flat in the Piazza
di Spagna in Rome in 1913 where he composed The Bells (and his
2nd Piano Sonata). The Bells, based on the verses by Edgar
Allan Poe, is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus and
large orchestra, and it evokes the life-cycle of birth, marriage, terror
and death. These in turn are related to different sorts of bells: silver,
golden, brass and iron.
The opening movement, 'The Silver Sleigh Bells' celebrates youth, joy and
romance with choir and tenor Robert Tear singing of a scenario with lovers
dreaming under the stars. The following 'Mellow Wedding Bells' has soprano
Sheila Armstrong and the choir singing tenderly of love consummated. But
the music also has a mournful edge as though Rachmaninov, rather than Poe,
was warning us of the responsibilities and ties of marriage and that it is
the first step on the downward path to death and oblivion. Clamour, terror
and despair characterise the break-neck Presto 'The Loud Alarum Bells'. In
Previn's hands this movement has irresistible drive and pungency. The bleak
monotonous declamations of the final movement 'The Mournful Iron Bells' that
features that fine baritone John Shirley Quirk, is evidence again of
Rachmaninov's fatal spirit. (Seated at Tchaikovsky's desk, perhaps he was
very conscious of the latter's Pathetique Symphony?)
This is another classic Previn performance with soloists choirs and the LSO
in excellent form.
Once more, inclusion of the words of the work would have helped.
Performances and sound