Ivan the Terrible and Leila Josefowicz

Prokofiev: London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Leila Josefowicz (violin), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Alexei Tanovitsky (bass), Rob Heaps (narrator), Xian Zhang (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 3.4.2011 (CG)

Prokofiev ; Violin Concerto No 1 Op 19 (1916-17)
Prokofiev (arr Stasevich); Ivan the Terrible – oratorio Op 116a (1942-46)

Visitors to the Barbican tonight had the opportunity of experiencing two very different sides of Prokofiev’s complex musical personality.

Although the First Violin Concerto was composed in 1916/17, it betrays little evidence of the political turbulence then gripping the nation; Prokofiev seems to have insulated himself from it. Instead, as a young man of twenty-five, he seems to be harping back to what appears to have been an idyllic childhood in the countryside of Ukraine, and he had also recently discovered the Ural Mountains and rivers of Eastern Russia, finding them to be incredibly beautiful. But this is not sentimental music; from the same period also came his ‘Classical’ Symphony (No. 1) and both works display elements of neo-classicism, albeit more pronounced in the symphony, which he partially modelled on Haydn’s music.

The concerto is an attractive work. Prokofiev was to criticise it later in life, but which composer doesn’t express a degree of embarrassment concerning his or her earlier opuses? It possesses charm, lightness and wit, and is immediately recognisable as Prokofiev with its quirky dissonances and lively rhythms. It is also melodic (though less overtly so than the ‘Classical’ Symphony or later works such as Romeo and Juliet) and the first movement opens with a long tune, which wanders around beguilingly before more dramatic music sets in. The orchestration here, and elsewhere in the concerto, is terrifically inventive and skilful, and full of light silvery colours which never hinder the solo violin part in any way. The scherzo, a characteristically upbeat Prokofiev affair, is particularly effective, and only in the last movement does he become more expansive with some beautifully autumnal music.

Leila Josefowicz, bedecked tonight in shades of glowing blue, has made a commendable speciality of performing new works by John Adams, Colin Matthews, Thomas Adès, Oliver Knussen and others, and loves her Prokofiev too – her performance appeared to be faultless. Her sound, sweet and brittle by turns, always suited the moment, and she made the most of the dancing rhythms in the last movement. Less faultless was the audience. Just as the quiet and rather beautiful cadenza approached, a woman let out an extended series of the loudest coughs I have ever heard in my life. It is regrettable that the person concerned had a nasty cough, but it is perfectly possible to muffle coughing quite effectively. She made no attempt to do so whatsoever and it is to the credit of soloist and conductor that they managed to ignore this disturbing, unnecessary and inconsiderate interruption.

Prokofiev was a pragmatist, yet ruthlessly individual; he would not decline an opportunity as a composer, but would always find a way of doing things his very own way. So although Ivan the Terrible started life as a film score, it is uncompromisingly Prokofiev, albeit a world away from the violin concerto. The history of this work is interesting in itself, being originally the score of Eisenstein’s epic film, which dealt with the reign of Tsar Ivan IV, in power from 1533-1584. It followed the notable success of Alexander Nevsky in 1938, the first collaboration between this composer and filmmaker. Eisenstein’s film was to have been in three parts; Part One appeared in 1945 to great acclaim, but problems emerged with Part Two, which was banished by the Soviets for daring to portray the Tsar less than positively. It did not appear until 1958, by which time both Prokofiev and Stalin had died. Part Three was abandoned.

If loud, strident music is your thing, the chances are you would have a ball with Ivan the Terrible! This is predominantly Prokofiev in aggressive, bombastic mode. The music is dissonant, dynamic, colourful, rhythmic – and also melodic and sometimes positively tuneful. The massive orchestra, complete with an army of percussionists and two tubas proudly on display, made one hell of a racket, and when the choir joined in too the effect was deafening!

Abram Stasevich was the original conductor of the film score, and it is he who prepared the version heard tonight, which includes a narration to explain the plot in the absence of the film. Surtitles were provided for those of us who do not speak Russian, and helpful they were too, even if the translation seemed somewhat prosaic at times – “It’s a hard business fighting for the Tsar…” There are 25 sections, each with its own character, and if the lingering impression is one of having experienced an extraordinary bombardment, it is not all like that. There is gorgeously melancholic music for the mezzo-soprano, radiantly performed by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. There are lovely sea effects from the orchestra, a beautiful “lullay” section for the choir, and a strangely wonderful movement featuring the two tubas, double basses and low clarinets. There is also a touching section for a humming chorus, and some use of folksy material. If I don’t quite think this is the very best of Prokofiev, others will disagree, and the audience certainly seemed genuinely thrilled to bits with it all. What a shame the house was not full.

The LSO was in sparkling form, the choir, if not always sounding quite “Russian,” was suitably lusty, and the Chinese conductor Xian Zhang managed her gigantic forces with absolute authority. She is a veritable jack-in-a-box – as bright and energetic a conductor as you’ll ever find. Isn’t it absolutely marvellous that classical music has become so international and all-encompassing that a young Asian woman can make a brilliant career for herself in what was, not so very long ago, almost exclusively the province of white Western men.

Christopher Gunning