Recently in Recordings
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14 Sep 2005
PROKOFIEV: Ivan the Terrible
Prokofiev was one of a number of twentieth-century composers of art music who also devoted a significant amount of time to composing for the cinema. The eight films for which he composed scores were met with varying degrees of success, from the celebrated fame of Aleksandr Nevsky to the frustrated productions of lesser-known films such as The Queen of Spades and Tonya. Sergei Eisenstein’s colossal trilogy Ivan the Terrible, for which Prokofiev composed his final film score, was met with both extremes: Although part one of the film was released in January of 1945 to great critical acclaim, the second part was attacked during production for political reasons, even to the extreme of attracting criticism from Stalin himself. Part two would not appear in theaters until 1958, long after Prokofiev and Eisenstein were gone, and part three was never produced.
For Prokofiev, the boundary between film music and art music was slight, and he often reused material from his film scores in his other compositions (and vice versa). The performance reviewed here continues in this tradition by bringing Prokofiev’s score for Ivan the Terrible to the ballet stage. Composer Abram Stassevich first raised the idea for such an adaptation in the late 1950s when the brief Khrushchev thaw opened the door for the release of part two of Ivan and a wider appreciation of Prokofiev’s music. The project was never realized in Stassevich’s lifetime—he instead chose to arrange a concert version of the score. It was not until the early 1970s that composer Mikhail Chulaki and choreographer Yuri Grigorovich—both top figures at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater—revived Stassevich’s original plan and produced the ballet version featured on this DVD. But Prokofiev purists beware: the Ivan ballet is far from a direct adaptation to the stage. Chulaki grafted segments of his own music to a significantly rearranged version of Prokofiev’s score, resulting in a work that only partially resembles the original Ivan. Aficionados of Prokofiev’s music will also recognize material from his other works embedded in the ballet, among them the Third Symphony and the Russian Overture (op.72). Grigorovich makes a similar departure from the original Ivan in his scenario, which puts the focus squarely on Ivan’s troubled place between Western rational action and Eastern mysticism and destructiveness. It is perhaps fitting that this adaptation of Ivan celebrates the ambiguities and uncertainties of the infamous tsar’s reign: the portrayal of uncertainties in Ivan’s character was one of the chief reasons Eisenstein’s original film encountered such difficulties with the Soviet authorities. Stalin’s identification with Ivan was well known, and, as such, any negative portrayal of the latter was heresy.
The fact that this ballet version of Ivan is not vintage Prokofiev or Eisenstein certainly should not detract from its interest. The Ivan the Terrible ballet represents a not only an attractive adaptation of Prokofiev’s work, but an example of the Soviet ballet tradition under the direction of one of its foremost choreographers, Mikhail Grigorovich. Grigorovich worked as the head ballet master at the Bolshoi from 1964 until 1995, during which time he became one of the major figures in Soviet ballet, receiving the prestigious Order of Lenin in 1976 for his work. Moreover, his tutelage guided several generations of dancers in the Soviet Union and played a role in creating and maintaining the distinctive arch-classical style of Russian dance in the twentieth century.
The dancing in this 1990 recording done at the Bolshoi is first-rate: the lead roles are given outstanding performances by two of the Bolshoi’s veteran dancers, Natalya Bessmertnova and Irek Mukhamedov. The sound quality of the recording lacks some depth and color, but the visual aspects more than make up for this (although the camera angle is rather static and there are few close-ups of the stage). The orchestral playing is a bit ragged at times—especially in the winds—but this does not detract substantially from this superb performance.
Kevin Michael Bartig
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill