Friday, 20 August 2010

Salzburg Festival (5) - Prokofiev, Ivan the Terrible, 17 August 2010

Grosses Festspielhaus

Prokofiev – Ivan the Terrible, op.116

Gérard Depardieu, Jan Josef Liefers (narrators)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
Ildar Adbrazakov (bass)
Salzburg Festival Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This was Riccardo Muti’s two hundredth performance at the Salzburg Festival: quite a milestone, if some way beyond whatever Herbert von Karajan must have notched up. 2010 also marks the fortieth year of Muti’s association with the festival, dating back to his invitation from Karajan to conduct Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Repertoire has ranged from Bach to Varèse, with a special focus, quite naturally, upon Mozart. Prokofiev has long featured in Muti’s programmes; three years ago I heard a superb Third Symphony from him and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as part of the tour that culminated in his appointment as Music Director, the post he will take up next month. For this celebration, Muti selected – at least I presume the choice was his – Ivan the Terrible.

I cannot help but wish he had not. Performances were in almost every way outstanding, yet if this ramshackle ‘oratorio’ cannot convince in so august a context, I doubt that it can anywhere. It is not the composer’s fault; what he wrote was film music, which was after his death reorganised, quite freely, by Abram Stasevich into the work we hear today. What doubtless works very well as music for Eisenstein’s epic does not necessarily stand up so well in the concert hall. Despite omissions and reordering, or perhaps in some case because of them, one has a lengthy work, somewhat lacking in variety and indeed in purpose.

That said, from the outset, Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic displayed razor-sharp discipline and an equally fine ear for orchestral colour. The Overture presented a Prokofiev recognisably the same as the composer of Lieutenant Kijé, albeit with more than a hint of socialist-realism-cum-new-simplicity, nationalist in a way that many will doubtless find problematical. I find it less problematical than not very good. Massed bells provided plenty of colour for the glorification of the Tsar, the debt to Boris Godunov all too obvious, a bit too much like a second pressing of olive oil, though the VPO’s percussion was certainly glorious. Motor rhythms were forcefully despatched, for instance in the orchestral depiction of ‘The Holy Fool’, virtuoso xylophone-playing worthy of especial mention. Viennese tubas almost convinced one that the longueurs of ‘To Kazan!’ were worth the effort.

The Rimsky-like ‘White Swan’ brought one of a number of fine contributions from the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus. Weight and gradation were impressive in the humming choruses. Neo-Mussorgskian popular suffering was powerfully conveyed in the a cappella singing of ‘Ivan at the Coffin of Anastasia’, with sparing yet telling direction from Muti. The only problem was that Mussorgsky himself achieved his musical ends so much better than Prokofiev here.

The narrators, Gérard Depardieu and Jan Josef Liefers generally did a splendid job too, Liefers perhaps more consistently impressive than Depardieu, whose haranguing rendition could veer towards the hammy. Perhaps that is what is required though. Liefers arguably steered a little close towards camp in the guise of the Holy Fool but, again, what is one supposed to do here? Muti would unobtrusively, yet crucially, hand Depardieu a number of cues. Olga Borodina did not have that much to do, but did it very well; Ildar Adbrazakov had still less to do, and did it extremely well. His sole appearance, in the ‘Song of Fyodor Basmanov and the Oprichniki’ was a highlight of the performance, truly heroic, dangerous even. It was good thereafter to hear a hint of Prokofiev the ballet composer in the ‘Dance of the Oprichniki’. The final blaze of (hollow) glory – ‘On the bones of our enemies, on charred ruins, Russia is being united!’ – imparted as strong a sense of satisfaction as one could imagine it doing. My cavils, as I said above, in no wise relate to the performances, rather to the material itself. It is only just to relate that the audience reaction was ecstatic.


Anonymous said...

The only thing foolish about the music in "Holy Fool" for this exceptional cantata is the critic who can't understand it. If Prokofiev is more effectively "extroverted" than other composers that hide their talentlessness in obscurity, then there's nothing wrong with him. The only reason this blog is called Boulezian is because the conductor (and sometimes composer) is as ignorant and small-minded as the critic. The avant-garde did better when it stuck its guns at Shostakovich, but this intolerance of looking at music for anything other than the extent to which it is imitable or to something like "influentialness," which relies far more on chance, circumstance, and market value than the music itself, is absurd.

Mark Berry said...

I am not sure that this relates in any meaningful way to what I said. For what it is worth - very little, by the sound of it - I admire a great deal of Prokofiev's music, from all periods of his career. I simply do not think that this way of presenting some of his film music shows him or it to best advantage. If that makes me 'ignorant and small-minded', so be it.

Prokofiev has always seemed to me a far superior composer to Shostakovich, who appears to be valued more for autobiographical than musical reasons, though the former tend to be converted into the latter. I do not recall mentioning or implying how 'influential' or otherwise any of this music might be, but I find the correlation with 'market value' baffling.

Anonymous said...

I am very surprised by this critic.

Why go to see a work you don"t like ??? (at the prices of Salzburg festival !!).

Me, i made the travel from France for this concert, because I think "Ivan Grozny" is one of the masterpiece of sovietical period of Prokofiev, and I am very happy that Muti conducts this work since a lot's of years.

For me, this concert was quasi perfect.
You think thay Depardieu was "too much". I think he was absolutely perfect : this "grandiloquence" you didn't like is, in fact, so russian. Russia is the country of excess. Depardieu was excessful, that's why he was perfect. Liefers too, was very russian and gave a very good performance.
Liefers pronounced russian better than Depardieu whose russia was a little artificial.

If you read the french, this is a paper with wich I totally agree :,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=1897&cntnt01origid=57&cntnt01lang=fr_FR&cntnt01returnid=54

Thank you !

Mark Berry said...

It would be a dull, unimaginative person who only attended a performance he was sure he would like. What about exposing oneself to something new, at least from time to time? In any case, one can never be certain of such things and it is surely a good thing to challenge preconceptions and prejudices.

Part of my point, however, was that this is not really a 'work' at all, merely an assemblage made following Prokofiev's death of music that was never intended to be performed like this. One might say that intention is neither here nor there, but the end result is not, for me at least, especially convincing. To think that this is the composer of 'The Fiery Angel': it seems a sad waste of Prokofiev's considerable talents...

Anonymous said...

Prokofiev made himself « cantate » from his film music for « Alexandre Nevsky » by Eisenstein. If he did not make the same thing for « Ivan Grozny », it’s because the film was unfinished.
The work of Abram Stassevitch for create a « cantate » (or a sort of oratorio) with film music for « Ivan Grozny » proceeds of the same initiative.

According to me, Stassevitch is very faithful to Prokofiev AND Eisenstein. The dramatic progression is extraordinary. Especially, it permits to hear this music without the multiples repetitions and cuts you can heard in the film. With the adjonction of a narrator, it permits to replace each numero in his dramatic context.
For all this, I find this work not scandalous at all. If you consider it’s not a good contribution for this work of Prokofiev, you must find not good the 10th symphoni by Mahler/Cooke, Khovanschina by Mussorgsky in the version of Rimsky-Korsakov or Chostakovitch, the Requiem of Mozart/Sussmayr, Lulu by berg with third act etc. etc.

AN example of what is really scandalous for me : what William Chrisite made with "Hippolyte et Aricie" by Rameau at the last festival of Aix-en-Provence.
He conducted extracts of this wonderful and perfect opera, thus isolated them of the dramatic context, even mixed them for some: that, it is scandalous

Another thing.
It musts compare what is comparable.
You can not compare « Fiery Angel » (1919-1927) to « Ivan Grozny » (1944). Because the Prokofiev of the years 1910-1920, when he lived in USA and France, is absolutely not the same of the Prokofiev of the years 1930-1940, after his return in Sovietical Union (1932).
The young Prokofiev is audacious, modernist, in the « avant-garde ». The Prokofiev of after 1932 is less audacious, more « simple » but is very interesting in his research of create a modern music which is too popular, for a large audience. The masterpieces of this period are « Romeo and Juliet », « Cendrillon », the 6th symphony or « Alexandre Nevsky ». The score for « Ivan Grozny » is absolutely in the same style but not at all in the perspective of create an audacious music of "avant-garde" as « Fiery Angel ». These scores don’t proceed at all of the same approach. That’s why they are incomparable.

Compare « Fiery Angel » and « Ivan Grozny », it’s like compare the « Symphonie Fantastique » and « Les Troyens » by Hector Berlioz. In one hand, a revolutionary music, in the other hand, a relatively academic opera. And nevertheless, two masterpieces...

Scuse muy bad english.