Prokofiev’s Music for Eisenstein with Valery Gergiev and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater at Fisher Hall, 11/17/2008

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Nikolai Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible in Sergey Eisentstein's Film

Nikolai Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible in Sergey Eisentstein's Film

Valery Gergiev
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Avery Fisher Hall

Monday, November 17, 2008 at 8:00

Sergey Prokofiev, Film Music

Sergey Prokofiev
Ivan the Terrible
Alexander Nevsky

The film score, Ivan the Terrible, is where I began my infatuation with Sergei Sergeyevich. I believe it’s his best work for a variety of reasons. After a couple of viewings, one realizes how deftly the music enhances the action & manipulates our emotions. I had to investigate the composer. After that, I fell passionately & hopelessly in love with the music, like something out of a Russian novel. I am so glad Maestro Gergiev included it in the November series, paired with Alexander Nevsky, a decent recording of which I couldn’t locate. What was an unexpected surprise about the program was that “Ivan” was performed before the Alexander Nevsky. I listened closely to both and think I know why the outspoken conductor put Ivan before Nevsky. (More on that later.) But you can imagine how high my expectations were for Ivan. Despite a couple of disappointments, Gergiev made it a delightful event, something not to have missed.

If there is a more patriotic piece by a Russian composer, I haven’t heard it. Thanks to the Bard festival last summer, we heard a rare performance of Prokofiev’s outrageous Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution,Op. 74 (1936–37), for which he was denounced by the official censors for his presumptuous use of lines spoken by Stalin. (I bet every singer in the Mid-Hudson Valley was hired for that performance, thanks to Maestro Botstein.) What is remarkable about Ivan the Terrible is that it’s filled with so much music the censors would have objected to under different circumstances. The dissonance of this piece compares as much, if not more, as in the Scythian Suite, a bravura piece from 1914-15 that Diaghilev mistakenly dismissed. And let’s not forget the liturgical-based choral music and folk melodies interwoven with Prokofiev’s peculiarly modern idiom. If it wasn’t for the Great Patriotic War amounting massive losses of Russian troops, the censors would never have let this one get past. Leeway must have been given during war-time and, thank the Lord, because I believe, next to Romeo & Juliet, this score is his masterpiece.

Here’s why. The score is so succinctly and thrillingly integrated with the film, one doesn’t recognize it until it’s over. For his second film project with Eisenstein, Prokofiev & the great director shared by this time an incredibly productive —some even claim unspoken— rapport. Eisenstein’s detailed drawings, annotated scripts, and meetings with his compatriot resulted in insightfully specific arrangements, composed overnight, delivered the next day. This was part of Prokofiev’s genius: collaborating with and inspired by artists of his caliber, he could compose on-demand, on-deadline, without a hiccup. If it takes two to tango, these 2 certainly did. Both were at the height of their powers. To me, the music needs no introduction, explanation, or distractions. It embodies the spirit of Russian music in all its complexities, spanning backwards to his predecessors (Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) and forward to his contemporaries, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

The synchronicity in sight and sound of the film also leads me to believe the spirit of Vsevolod Meyerhold is imbued throughout. His teachings and theories of biomechanics for live theatre correspond with the impeccable co-ordination of visual imagery and score in the relatively newer medium of cinema. Don’t forget Eisenstein was a student of Meyerhold’s who went on successfully to develop a new genre in films after the October Revolution. Prokofiev & Meyerhold were friends: they anticipated staging operas together even as Prokofiev traversed nations on tour, so they must have been in agreement about Meyerhold’s radical theories of theatre. For it was Meyerhold who, before Prokofiev left for the US on tour, gave him the book by Gotti of theCommedia dell’ Arte farce on which the opera, realized on his wanderings through a Chicago Opera commission, was based. The film can be seen as a culmination of Meyerhold’s theories of action, design, costume, and sound. And though he did not last as director at the Moscow Art Theatre (assassinated by Stalin’s regime for his radical artistic ideas in 1940) the film is a tribute to him in its achievement, even in the extraordinary performance of Serafima Berman (in the role of Yefrosiniya) who actually succeeded Meyerhold as director of the Moscow Art.

But how to perform a film score without the film? Here is where I think Gergiev took the wrong approach. Two soloists, the bass Mikhail Petrenko and mezzo-soprano Kristina Kapustinskaya (who played the Cook and Smeraldina inThe Love for Three Oranges, respectively) sat on stage with the orchestra. From the beginning, in between, and sometimes even during the orchestration, Gospodin Petrenko narrated synoptic bits and pieces throughout. Sometimes he was drowned out by the volume of the orchestra! By this time, either you’ve seen the film or you haven’t. (But honestly, it doesn’t really matter; the music stands for itself!) The bass singer also spoke English with a Russian-inflected British accent, not something American ears can assimilate easily.

Unfortunately, during one of my favorite movements—the one I personally consider to be the center of the piece, the most dramatic moment of the whole composition and Part I, when the boyars reject Ivan’s pathetic appeals to recognize his son’s right of succession—the baritone took on the role of Ivan, narrating their names one by one while the orchestra played on behind him. The Russian names and his accent took us back to the land of Mongol yokes, Russian rivers, birches and furs. But this is such a powerful moment visually in the film and the music fits so beautifully, it didn’t need any added interruption. I understand the urge to clarify but royal Russian names belted out above the forte orchestration distracted terribly from the beauty of this quintessentially Prokofievan climax. It was ineffective. By contrast, the scene in the film shows Czar Ivan crawling on hands and knees in his royal nightgown, clutching pathetically at the fat boyars’ sable-encrusted robes. They can’t look him in the eye; they can’t even see below their fat-cat bellies. Hiding behind their full rich beards, they look askance, mortified by Ivan’s depravity.)

It didn’t bother Maestro Gergiev. In particular, this passage had some unusual starts, unlike the rest of the performance whose movements under his hand started and stopped with the precision of a Breguet watch. This, my favorite section is exceptionally and stridently dissonant. The bass strings lead a minor-key melody in a high whine, perversely pretending to be violas, but sounding more like sick geese gasping for life or some medieval torture ceremony. And it fits; it’s a tense moment for Ivan, discovering who’s loyal and who’s not just before his death. (There’s been too much bad blood spilled among the old families.) He’s not loved. (It’s like our last U.S. administration.) And the music saunters relentlessly for 7-plus minutes mostly through the cellos then other sections until we want to die of despair on Ivan’s behalf.

But this wasn’t Gergiev’s intention—to satisfy just me. The maestro produced a revelation I hadn’t heard yet. This movement was, indeed, a climax. It was fortissimo and expressed all the tension of the myriad songs that came before and after: the happy coronation choruses, the beautiful folk melodies of the wedding feast. Reprises, variations, and repetitions of songs coursing like a river current in and out at such a volume and fast pace. And then abruptly, as if there was a death, the whole orchestra hushed to play the most beautiful song in pianissimo! This was pure magic. But I suddenly felt a gnawing sadness deep inside. It reminded me of a Tchaikovsky song sung by the trio, Piques Dames, about countless tears shed. Could this short song also evoke the land where Prokofiev came from, the Ukraine (literally “before the frontier”), where Czar Ivan, the very first “Caesar” of Muscovy, audaciously dared to reclaim the land as “Russian.” I looked at my program for a clue: The Tartar Steppes, it said. Yes, in this gorgeous tune was the sad song of indiscriminate massacres and faceless numbers lost to raids by the Tartars to oppress the Slavs and other peoples settled on the steppes. It caught me completely off-guard, it was so exquisite. There’s such beauty in sadness sometimes. Prokofiev captured it—Gergiev led us through it, to help us heal the sorrow of all the brethren of his generation who sacrificed their lives in war.

The Song about the Beaver, sung by Kristina Kapustinskaya, was wonderfully performed. She sang in rich sonorous tones the tune about a beaver watching over the city to see who will come to kill him for a new royal vestment for the next Czar, Volodomir, Yefrosiniya’s son and Ivan’s cousin. This charming Russian song about the animal on alert before death sardonically enhances the brutal denouement of Part II. In a twist of fate, it’s Volodmir who actually becomes the metaphorical Beaver. Earlier in Part II, after an assassination plan has been hatched, Yefrorsiniya cradles Volodmir’s head in her arms, singing the Beaver lullaby a cappella in a plain ordinary sort of way, as he drifts off to sleep in her lap. Suddenly she’s a tender mother again, not the one who earlier poisoned Ivan’s bride. The song foreshadows the most powerful scene of Part II when her son mistakenly gets assassinated, instead of Ivan, she repeats the song again completely out of her mind, beserk—one of the most moving moments in cinema history.  Just the same Ms. Kapustinskaya did an exceptional job.

The humming passage of the male chorus members, presaging Volodimir’s assassination, was so spooky it sent chills up my spine. Not only does the score take you on a roller-coaster of joyous cheerful ludicrous songs, it draws you into a medieval darkness where you feel vulnerable, unprotected, and desperate.

The Nevsky was shorter and you could hear the germ of melodies used in “Ivan” in it. it comes to a Scriabinesque climax in “The Battle of the Ice,” where, legend has it, the enemy is ruined by falling through. Again, it’s a story of Russian historical significance of the country’s budding national identity. What struck me the most was a solo by Kristina Kapustinskaya after Battle on the Ice. She rose and sang a song about warfare from the woman’s perspective about the field of death. The melody was transcendent though sad. The lyrics express in patriotic terms the strength to persevere:

I shall cross the snow-white field,
I shall fly over the field of death,
I shall search out the bright-eyed falcons,
my husbands, my fine fellows,
Some lie hacked by swords,
some lie pierced by an arrow,
they have watered with their scarlet blood
the scared land, the Russian land.
Whoever died a fine death for Russia
I shall kiss him on his lifeless eyes,
I shall be the faithful and loving bride
of that fine lad who survived the battle.
I shall not take the handsome one to be my husband—
earthly beauty has its end.
but I shall wed the brave one.
Now answer me, bright-eyed falcons!

Is it just my imagination or is Maestro Gergiev making a statement about the current state of world affairs, not just his native Ossetia (as reported a week before this concert) but also to us and Mr. Bush? Historically-speaking, the famous battle in Nevsky which sparked a Russian national identity, was in fact part of an ongoing religious war between Christians—the aggressive Latin West and Orthodox East. Like suicide, war is difficult for those of us left behind to cope. Again, Prokofiev has a way of making sadness so beautiful, and how virtuous it is to persevere. My mind was fixed on this song for the rest of the piece. I couldn’t hear anything else. The Maestro made his point.

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