About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network

New York

Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Propaganda Made Immortal

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
11/17/2008 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Ivan the Terrible Oratorio, Opus 116, arranged by Alexander Stasevich – Alexander Nevsky Cantata, Opus 78
Kritina Kapustinskaya (Mezzo-Soprano), Mikhail Petrenko (Bass/Narrator)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev (Music Director and Conductor)

Valery Gergiev (© Anna Eriksson/SR)

The usual banality is that Josef Stalin “stifled the arts”. Or, at the most, turned his artists into propagandists. Both are partly true. But last night, Valery Gergiev offered two pieces of blatant anti-Nazi and pro-Stalin propaganda, to which the sophisticated Avery Fisher audience went wild. When Gergiev finished each cantata, taken from three films, with forte-fortissimo choruses, blaring orchestra, drums rolling, bells tintinnabulating…well, if they had worn bearskin caps and thick babushkas, the audience would have thrown them in the air with cries of Nzdrovnya!! Nozdrovnya!!, or, at the least, “Huzzah! Huzzah!”.

The music can’t help that sort of reaction in itself, though those of us who have seen Alexander Nevsky or the two films of Ivan the Terrible couldn’t help visualizing what Gergiev was inspiring. The conductor needed just his two hands, no baton, to make the Kirov Orchestra trumpets blare, the strings play hard, and the tuba—Prokofiev’s omnipresent tuba—ring out with splendor. Gergiev is a man who has resurrected and actually given verisimilitude to the most insubstantial late Prokofiev operas, so taking the music which the composer wrote with Eisenstein was no problem at all.

That word “with” is so important. When living in America, the Russian composer was frequently asked by Hollywood producers to write music for their dramas. Both Josef von Sternberg and Gloria Swanson would have paid him fortunes for background music. The composer was hardly averse to money, but he knew that movies needed more than luscious tunes and tremolo strings.

As a musical satirist, he had no problem writing the satirical Lt Kije back in Moscow. But when he met Eisenstein, it was one of those fateful meetings like DeNiro and Scorsese, or Kurosawa and Mifune. They didn’t see film as photographed drama. They saw it as an absolutely new form, where music played a greater part than ballet. It was movement of camera, acting, story and pure musical inspiration.

Did Stalin see the characters of Ivan and Nevsky as his own spiritual forebears? If so, Eisenstein and Prokofiev could take the money and run straight to the studios to do what they wanted.

What they wanted was almost shown last night. True, Prokofiev wanted to write his own cantata on Ivan and he was even planning an opera, but was too old, too near death. Still, one can hear Ivan The Terrible as a latter day Boris Godunov, just as Nevsky is a glorious pro-Russian message with all the stops pulled out.

Nevsky under Gergiev, has the obvious thrills of large-sounding choruses (larger than their relatively modest ranks), the Battle on the Ice, which has never ever been bettered. (William Walton almost plagiarized it for the “Battle of Agincourt” scene in Henry V), and an aria for contralto which is as moving as anything the composer ever wrote for any of his operas.

Some of us believe that the late French contralto Jennie Tourel, in the Ormandy recording, could have no competition. But Ktistina Kapustinskaya started her aria walking over 13th Century killing fields, with almost unheard quietness, speaking in Russian, “I shall cross the snow-white field, I shall fly over the field of death…” branching out with gorgeous tones. The chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre obviously know Nevsky by heart, and their ringing tones with the orchestra made the rafters ring.

Nevsky’s music is painted in the same wham-bang strokes which Prokofiev used in the horrible On Guard For Peace. The music for Ivan the Terrible is more subtle, more psychological, far darker. The choruses come close to folk tunes, but also flirt with the Russian Orthodox Church music. Frequently last night, when the men were singing alone, or when a brass choir of tuba, bass trombone, French horn and bassoon were playing, I was transported out of Avery Fisher Hall in to the heavy incense and deep tones of a Russian Easter service.

In the oratorio, written after the death of the composer, narrator, chorus and orchestra play equal roles. Here, the narrator spoke lightly Slavified English, while the chorus sung Russian. Mikhail Petrenko, the great Russian bass, did the narration, which broke up the first half. Not only did the last 30 minutes of the 70-minute piece have mainly music, but Petrenko showed his voice in song. The aria is hardly earth-shattering but he is a very dramatic singer and narrator.

With all the deserved applause (as well as a few tears that this was Gergiev’s last concert for a while), I doubt if anybody became a Stalinist. It isn’t the time or place for such horrors. But like wicked Medicis or despotic Habsburg Emperors, Joseph Stalin and his cohorts may well be remembered both for blood-curdling mass murders and the kind of heart-stopping agitprop music which we heard last night.

Harry Rolnick



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com