EDITORs RECOMMENDATION August 2000
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Ivan the Terrible*. Alexander Nevsky
*Irina Arkhipova (mezzo-soprano);
Anatoly Mokrenko (baritone); Boris Morgunov (narrator), Ambrosian Chorus
and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Ricardo Muti
Anna Reynolds (mezzo-soprano) London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
conducted by André Previn.
(with Sergei Rachmaninovs 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
5 73353 2
This is a very clever idea to package Prokofievs 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,
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 Eisensteins 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 Londons Kingsway Hall is magnificent and stunningly thrilling.
The opening movement is entitled Russia under the Mongolian Yolk
and it is a vivid example of Prokofievs 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 Alexanders 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 Stalins 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 Stalins and Prokofievs deaths, and
ten after Eisensteins
Concert-goers had to wait for their first taste of this huge score until
Alexander Stasevich reassembled Prokofievs incidental music in the
form of an oratorio in 1961.
Ricardo Mutis 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
Ivans 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! Ivans Appeal
that follows mixes tension with tenderness. Impassioned strings mix with
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 Mussorgskys 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 Ivans character. This is just another example of Prokofievs
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
Rachmaninovs 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 Previns 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 Rachmaninovs fatal spirit. (Seated at
Tchaikovskys desk, perhaps he was very conscious of the latters
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