There aren’t many works the Chicago Symphony hasn’t performed in its long history that are indispensable to the orchestral literature, but one such work on that list was Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, that is until Riccardo Muti presented its belated local première this week.  Composed between 1941-46 as the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s monumental film, the piece is fraught with a complicated history. Part I of the film was released in 1945 to great acclaim; while Stalin empathized with the titular tsar facing threats both internally and from neighboring nations to the west, he found the second part disagreeable, and it wasn’t shown to the public until 1958 – after the death of dictator, director and composer – and a final installment of a proposed triptych was necessarily scrapped.

Still from <i>Ivan the Terrible</i> © Courtesy of the Gene Siskel Film Center
Still from Ivan the Terrible
© Courtesy of the Gene Siskel Film Center

Unlike Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev’s previous collaboration with Eisenstein (which Muti conducted here two seasons ago), Prokofiev was not the one to prepare a concert version of the film score, leaving the task to others. Muti opted for the version by Abram Stasevich, conductor of Prokofiev’s original in the film. Stasevich’s 1961 creation is constructed as a twenty-movement oratorio, drawing on music from both parts of the film, with roles for speakers, two vocal soloists, chorus, and children’s chorus. Several movements were rewritten in some semblance of ternary form, easing the transition from soundtrack to concert music. Unwieldy a concoction as it may be, Muti sustained a coherent narrative and dramaturgy through the course of its nearly 90-minute duration.

The overture was bold and bellicose, the heroic brass depicting Ivan (his epithet “Grozny”, though rendered in English as “terrible”, is more literally akin to “formidable”). The orchestration here and throughout was quite colorful, augmented by alto and tenor saxophones, both finely played by J. Michael Holmes. Sasha Cooke’s resonant mezzo-soprano in “Ocean-Sea” conveyed the sad nostalgia of Ivan’s fractured childhood, though matters were overridden by an unmistakable Russian nationalism. The spoken role of Ivan was given by the noted French actor Gérard Depardieu, who had previously collaborated with Muti on the same stage in Berlioz’s Lélio. While Depardieu had an undeniably imposing dramatic presence, one nonetheless wondered if these interjections were altogether necessary given the sheer power and beauty of the music.

Gérard Depardieu, Sasha Cooke and Riccardo Muti © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Gérard Depardieu, Sasha Cooke and Riccardo Muti
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

“The Holy Fool” was marked by instrumentation in the low brass, and the role was ably delivered by baritone Michael Brown from the choir loft. A moment of repose was to be had in “The White Swan” with credit going to the female chorus members and pair of harps. “The Tartars”, scored for orchestra alone, elicited a faux-exoticism through Alex Klein’s oboe and John Bruce Yeh’s straining of the clarinet’s upper register. “To Kazan!” was the most extended movement, perhaps drawing comparison to the central “Battle on Ice” from Alexander Nevsky. It opened with bass clarinet and tuba, a foreboding combination, and burgeoned to the scope of a tone poem, cinematic in its detailing.

Haunting vocalizations in the chorus followed in a wordless reminiscence of the Tartar plains, as Ivan was erroneously thought to have perished in battle. “Efrosiniya and Anastasia” was another striking moment in the sweeping melodies in the strings; “Efrosiniya’s Lullaby” brought back Cooke for another affecting delivery. “Choir of the Oprichniki”, Ivan’s secret police force, expressed their supreme devotion to the tsar, followed by an oath set to a melody familiar from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. “Song of Fyodor Basmanov and the Oprichniki” brought forth the resounding bass of Mikhail Petrenko who sang of the Oprichniki brutality, in grisly, macabre detail.

Gérard Depardieu © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Gérard Depardieu
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The finale featured the repeated and thematically important line “the voice of the people is the voice of God”, presented in a magnificent choral splendor – the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Chicago Children’s Chorus, respectively prepared by Duain Wolfe and Josephine Lee, were easily the stars of the show. Ivan’s theme resurfaced, and the decibels were ramped up in the concluding moments of one of Muti’s finest achievements in Chicago to date.

On a final note, thanks are due to the CSO administration for hosting a screening of both parts of the film a few days prior to the concerts, affording one the opportunity to experience Prokofiev’s music in the context in which it was originally envisioned – though as Muti and company proved, the music can unequivocally stand on its own, and gloriously so.