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.