A ruthless Russian leader quelling revolt and uniting his country through waging war on its neighbours: the theme of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, intended as a Soviet propagandist parable, raises a knowing eyebrow even today. Most of Prokofiev’s score was complete by 1943, before filming had even begun, yet it is tightly integrated with the action, so closely had the composer collaborated with the director. An hour’s worth of excerpts formed the bulk of this raucously enjoyable concert by the Philharmonia under Vladimir Ashkenazy, beneath a screening of key scenes from the film itself.
Ivan the Terrible followed the success of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), for which Prokofiev had also provided the score. It was intended that Ivan was to be a trilogy, although the third part was never made after Part II fell foul of Andrei Zhdanov’s censorship in 1948 (this after Part I had been awarded the Stalin Prize). Unlike Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev never made a concert suite from his music, so this score is far less familiar to concertgoers. The generous selection presented here followed the film’s basic narrative.
Ivan is threatened by enemies abroad - Tartars rampaging in the south, Livonians blocking the way to the sea – and by plots within his inner circle of boyars. The parallels with Stalin himself weren’t difficult to decipher. Ivan foils a plot on his life and protects himself through the establishment of the oprichniki – a state police. The acting in the film is of a bygone era, exaggerated and strongly histrionic, but still powerful through the director’s bold close-ups and striking use of shadows. There was very little dialogue retained (subtitled), some of it barely audible beneath the music.
Prokofiev’s score is of mixed quality, much of it brash and noisy, but dispatched by the Philharmonia with fervour. Ashkenazy opened his selection with an a cappella chorus (Ivan was apparently a composer of Orthodox hymns) bearing a strong resemblance to the national anthem with which English audiences are most familiar from its use in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Prokofiev doesn’t stint on the pomp in Ivan’s Coronation Scene and Wedding, a percussionist using two mallets to get maximum impact from the bass drum. Brass and a battery of percussion had a veritable field day in the battle sequence as Ivan wages war on Kazan. Brooding cellos depict the scene between Ivan’s Tsarina, Anastasia Romanova, and Efrosina, who plots to get her son on the throne. In ‘Schemes at the Kremlin’, Ivan foils Efrosina’s plot, resulting in her son being killed instead.
The best known scene is the ‘Bacchanale at the Kremlin’, the only part of the film Eisenstein shot in colour, featuring a drinking song for baritone and chorus, followed by the ‘Dance of the Oprichniks’. Bass-baritone Nathan Berg, in his only participation of the evening, presented his character as a not-so-distant musical relation of Varlaam (from Boris Godunov) and Galitsky (Prince Igor). Mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi contributed strongly in another solo with orchestra earlier. Neither was surtitled. The chorus, made up of Philharmonia Voices and singers drawn from other London choirs, occasionally sounded too few in number to make the sort of impact I had anticipated (69 singers on the platform).
The decibel-busting, ear-syringing volume of which Prokofiev is capable was amply met in the Philharmonia’s rendition of the Scythian Suite, which opened the concert. The big screen meant that the orchestra’s members were all at ‘ground level’ on the Royal Festival Hall’s platform, apart from the slightly raised percussion section, yet this didn’t prevent them from packing a sonic punch.
Originally intended as a ballet (Ala and Lolli) for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the score was rejected by the impresario, who feared it was a poor imitation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The scenario concerned the nomadic Scythian tribe of the Asian steppes, north of the Black Sea. The opening two movements are pulsating. Ashkenazy, with his short, stabbing, angular movements on the podium, kept a tight, rhythmic grip on the reins, driving the music onwards relentlessly. Spiccato cellos and basses eerily depicted evil spirits, while the glacial string sound underpinning the piccolo of the third movement, with flecks of colour from harp and glockenspiel, vividly conjured night. Low on subtlety it may be, but Prokofiev’s music, when played as exuberantly as this, is a real tonic.