This evening’s programme showed us two aspects of Prokofiev’s output – his serious concert works for the stage and on the other hand his more populist music composed for film. Both were highly exciting, colourful works, and both typical of Prokofiev in different ways.
The First Violin Concerto was a curious mixture of the ethereal and rustic. In what was almost an intentional nod to the fact that the work was composed on the shores of the River Volga, Josefowicz appeared on stage in a mermaid-like pale blue dress with flowing train. The rhapsodic opening was clear and poised before launching into the Prokofiev bite we have come to expect – angry trills in the lower register of the violin. The piece had the transparency of texture common to other works of the period, such as the Classical Symphony. The folk element was in the driving pizzicato strums from the soloist, before culminating in a fairytale-like scene punctuated by harp over a stark orchestral background.
The highlight came with the Scherzo, where the military rhythms of the snare were reminiscent of the famous ‘Troika’ of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé suite. Josefowicz’s bow had just the right amount of bounce for the buoyant dancing across the strings: her playing had an exciting weightlessness. She pulled off all of the special effects with precision; the whistling harmonics and nasty-sounding sul pont bows near the bridge of the violin. The finale showcased a familiar Prokofiev device – the eerie tick-tock of the accompaniment set against a contorted violin melody. In an inversion of the opening dark trills, the piece floated away with a series of extremely high trills.
Zhang is no stranger to the film scores of Prokofiev, having conducted the music for ‘Alexander Nevsky’ with the LSO back in 2008 (another one of Prokofiev’s collaborations with director Eisenstein), that time with the added novelty of having the film projected during the performance. Originally intended as an epic historical trilogy, only Parts I and II of ‘Ivan the Terrible’ were completed, as Soviet officials were unhappy with the negative portrayal of Ivan’s mental decline (Stalin wanted others to see him as a similar figure who would unite Russia).
Naturally, this was an intensely theatrical performance, enhanced by the impassioned Russian prologue from narrator Rob Heaps. The racing violin theme and triumphant brass fanfare that open the film were soon followed by jaunty piano and clarinet, ominously hinting at the menace that is to come later.
In the ‘Ocean’ song, the rich mezzo-soprano of Catherine Wyn-Rogers lent a welcoming warmth of tone that was otherwise absent from this largely spiky work. This was later echoed by the gentle swells of the ladies’ chorus in ‘The Swan’. After this point the work gradually becomes more terrifying, with stabbing violins and the anxiety in the narrator’s voice. Here Ivan desperately clings onto power with the help of his devoted oprichniki, who wreak terror on anyone who arouses suspicion. As Ivan descends into paranoia we move away from the radiant optimism of the opening chorus, ‘Long live the Tsar’, to the harsh realities of war and starvation through menacing brass and thumping bass drum.
The raucous highlight was to be found in the shrieking whistles and emphatic bass solo (sung by Alexei Tanovitsky) of Feodor Basmanov’s drinking song, before Ivan’s triumphant return to a clattering of bells. If such intensely nationalistic pride at all costs sits somewhat uncomfortably with us today (the final chorus sings of how ‘on the funeral pyre of her enemies Russia is made whole’), then we feel this even more so when remembering the context in which the work was composed. Such a work might at times seem ridiculously overblown, intended as it was to glorify what Stalin believed was the greatest ruler of Russia. However, for all its excesses, this remained an immensely enjoyable performance, driven throughout by the concentrated energy of Xian Zhang. The film itself might be in black and white, but the music was a vividly colourful spectacle.