Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester performs Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible with new narration
Live concert recording, conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, will be released on the Audite label
The Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester (DSO), one of seven major orchestras on Berlin’s dense music scene, is living up to its standards of adventurous programming with freshly installed music director Tugan Sokhiev. The young Russian native, whose other engagements include a successful tenure with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse and a close relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra, unveiled the central work of the season on January 12 with the oratorio version of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible featuring new German-language texts written and narrated by the Berlin-based author Wladimir Kaminer. Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov, seasoned soloists in this work, the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the boys’ choir of the Berlin State Cathedral joined for the performance, recorded for release on the German boutique label Audite.
Sokhiev explains that he and the orchestra approached Kaminer, a Russian native of Jewish heritage known for his writings about immigrant life in the German capital, due to his symbolic presence for the Russian community. ‘We thought it would be nice to invite someone whom the audience associates with the culture, not just to have an actor reading in a pompous way.’ The conductor, who programmed the Alexander Newski suite in March of last year, also hopes to introduce the Berlin – and particularly the DSO – audience to a broader spectrum of Prokofiev’s talent. ‘People probably know a few concerti or symphonies, but it’s nice to show that he was extremely fond of movies and writing this fabulous music,’ he says.
The oratorio Ivan the Terrible was in fact not written by Prokofiev himself but fashioned posthumously out of his original score for the first two parts of Sergei Eisenstein’s eponymous film. The author, Abram Stassewitsch, who conducted performances for screen, made several changes to the music, including the introduction of a speaker. The oratorio premiered under his baton in 1968 with the St Louis Orchestra. Subsequent versions include a concert scenario by Christopher Palmer, an oratorio by British conductor Michael Lankester with English-language texts, and a ballet choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich.
Eisenstein’s film, intended as a trilogy in the likes of Wagner’s Ring, tells the story of the first crowned Tsar of Russia, Ivan IV, whose 16th-century war campaign set the stage for the unification of Russia under Peter the Great. The Tsar’s power politics – not to mention his unprecedented sanctification by the Orthodox Church – provided a subversive allegory for the Stalinist regime under which Eisenstein created the film. While the first part, premiered in 1945, won a prize from the dictator, the communist party declared Ivan II a misrepresentation of historical fact the following year and prohibited its distribution. The final installment was never realised, and Prokofiev’s ideas – of which there is no evidence – were likely absorbed into later works such as War and Peace.
Kaminer’s narration, in contrast to the original texts which depict Ivan as a fighter for political unity in quasi-religious terms, immediately deconstructs the historical complicity with Christianity. ‘As a long as I am leader of this Rome, nothing can happen to me,’ he declares, striking a mix of solemnity and sarcasm. Few people in the audience, however, could restrain laughs upon one of his final lines: ‘Dear God, let my soul rest in peace. Yours, you already know who.’ The DSO performed with full-bodied sound under Sokhiev, digging into the bold textures of Prokofiev’s vivid score. True to Eisenstein’s Wagnerian inspiration, the composer includes identifiable themes, such as a trumpet motive over swirling strings that proclaims Ivan’s ambitions. There are also passages of beautiful choral writing, ranging from orthodox harmonies to folk-derived tunes, such as in the The Swan. Borodina and Abdrazakov carried effortlessly above the large ensemble in solo numbers.