Egyptian Nights [narrated in English, sung in Russian]
Prokofiev, arr. Atovmyan
Ivan the Terrible [world premiere; sung in Russian with English surtitles]
Miranda Richardson & Simon Callow (narrators)
Ewa Podleš (contralto) & Andrey Breus (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 28 January, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Vladimir Jurowski’s final involvement in the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Prokofiev: Man of the People?” series saw a real rarity and a world premiere, the latter an unveiling of a new version – although ‘new’ might give the wrong impression, as it was the original concert version prepared from Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s uncompleted three-part Ivan the Terrible, that was lost to the world for some 50 years after its compiler Levon Atovmyan had a double stroke. Only in 2007 did it resurface when his daughter urged it on Nelly Kravetz and he honoured her wish to arrange its premiere.
Jurowski and the London Philharmonic obliged and gave the cantata, cast in a similar mode to Prokofiev’s own from his earlier collaboration with Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky. Plenty of you will have Ivan the Terrible recorded already (and hopefully Atovmyan’s soon too). There are at least three other versions; first and foremost that by Abram Stasevich, who had conducted the original film score, and who’s ‘concert’ version with narrator was premièred on what would have been Prokofiev’s 70th-birthday, 23 April 1961. That was three months after Atovmyan’s version had been given the nod of approval by the appropriate Soviet committee, but his strokes intervened. Subsequently both Michael Lankaster (recorded by Rostropovich and the LSO) and Christopher Palmer (recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Philharmonia Orchestra) produced versions.
Kravetz provided a detailed note for Ivan the Terrible which was meticulous in observing where Atovmyan deviated from Prokofiev’s score, including some changes in instrumentation and choral parts, but on first hearing any changes were perfectly idiomatic and in style, not expressly following the events in the film. Atovmyan’s version is a 50-minute, eight-movement cantata, with a third-movement baritone solo, a rather violent nationalist song and more-sombre second and sixth movements for contralto (the first a curious dark lullaby ‘The Black Beaver’).Andrey Breus, resplendent in his shining blue kosovorotka (Tolstoy shirt) and boots, every bit the rabble-rouser Fyodor Basmanov, and dark-toned Ewa Podleš were superb soloists, and the London Philharmonic Choir sang the Russian with commendable fervour. Jurowski conducted with all the commitment and whip-lash baton action we have come to expect, and Prokofiev’s score sounded all-the-better for no narrative interruption as in earlier versions. Atovmyan’s version gets closest to brining Ivan the Terrible to the concert hall, if not having the immediate, guttural appeal of Nevsky. The potential for an LPO disc release will spread the word further.
Ironically, given the length and detail of the programme note for Ivan there was something of a disappointment in the programme book with only the sole paragraph about what turned out to be the longest work in the programme. It was billed as incidental music from Egyptian Nights with excerpts from the three literary works that inspired director Alexander Tairov’s 1934 stage production about Cleopatra – by Shaw, Pushkin and Shakespeare. Prokofiev composed 44 separate numbers for this originally successful work (but which rapidly fell out of Soviet favour and remains little-known). By contrast to Ivan here the music got swamped with the plethora of words. Miranda Richardson, in her gold shoes, and Simon Callow coped with Shaw’s rather jokey treatment of Caesar and Cleopatra (he discovering her on the Sphinx, when she doesn’t recognise him), had a harder time with the rhyming translation of Pushkin’s unfinished poem, from which the work got its title, and were visibly relieved to get to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
But there was too much, and although Prokofiev’s score – not perhaps immediately identifiable Prokofiev – was enjoyable, it was hard to grasp it in total. Breus (in concert dress) stood next to the men of the London Philharmonic Choir for their brief contribution. Subsequent to the performance I have listened to Jurowski’s father, Michail, conduct it on a 2004 Capriccio recording, and definitely learned to like the score. The recording uses far fewer words – and in Russian – so that the music is to the fore, and Prokofiev’s main contrasting themes, for Cleopatra (delicious use of woodwind, harp and saxophone) and the more martial Romans, impacted more strongly. Perhaps a recording of the concert performance will make better sense, but it was definitely a worthwhile opener and fitted well within the festival schema. However, much better to have had more information about the work.
Preceding the main concert was a 45-minute recital given by musicians from the Royal College of Music. The Silver Quartet (from violist Natasha Silver) performed the three-movement folk-inspired Second String Quartet and Galya Bisenalieva and Agata Darashkaite performed the Sonata for two violins flanking the diminutive but visually and aurally arresting arrangement of his piano Humoresque that Prokofiev made for four bassoons. Okay, I’m a lapsed bassoonist, but it was a joy to hear and watch!