RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Christmas Eve / Night on Mount Triglav (Igor Golovschin/ Inc. Betta International/ Moscow Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553789)
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Born in 1844 Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov showed exceptional promise as a musician as early as six years of age, yet he was to follow in the family tradition and entered naval college in 1856. He continued his career in the navy until 1872, and it was to be the sea and travel to exotic places that was to colour much of his music. It was in 1861 that he met the great Russian trio of Balakirev, Cui and Mussorgsky, and it was that contact which convinced him music should be his future life.
On his next tour of duty aboard ship he composed his first symphony, which was conducted by Balakirev in 1865.
His interest in the navy quickly diminished, and he was writing a considerable amount of music in all forms. But from childhood he had been fascinated by opera, and it was in that area of music he thought himself most suited. His first venture was The Maid of Pskov completed in 1872. That coincided with his marriage to a very beautiful, but strong-willed young lady who was to shape his career. Life also took a most favourable turn when he was given the post of Inspector of Naval Bands, a not particularly arduous post, but one that carried a handsome salary. It also allowed him time to listen to and understand band instrumentation.
Yet he was to prove a fitful composer, with practically nothing of importance written in the mid 1880's. But then came his two orchestral masterpieces, the Capricco Espagnol and Sheherazade, quickly followed by the Russian Easter Festival Overture.
They were completed by 1888, at which time he first saw Wagner's The Ring, and decided to dedicate himself to opera.
It was, in many ways, to mark the end of his career, as his works in this field, with the exception of The Golden Cockerel, have never held a place in the international opera repertoire. He suffered the severe disability of an inability to create drama, and his librettos contained so many unreal characters, that he was never to find personalities in his stories. It seems ironic that he was to die before his one operatic masterpiece, The Golden Cockerel, was first performed in 1909.
Rimsky-Korsakov's operas are little known outside of his native country, but he wrote 16, with Sadko from 1896 and The Golden Cockerel, being his most famous. In 1895 he completed Christmas Eve, premiered in St. Petersburg in December, a work he described as \a carol come to life". The story in complicated, but involves Valuka's love for Oxana, and his collusion with the devil to win her hand. The events take place at Christmas, and contains considerable scene painting, much of it gathered to form an attractive Overture and Suite in eight sections.
The opera, Mlada, of 1891, had little success when first staged, and ten years later, the composer decided to rescue much of the music from the third act to form an orchestral suite, Night on Mount Triglav. Again it is a work of scene painting, the long introduction depicting the starry night on the mountain, with subsequent scenes of ghosts, witches and demons. In this form the work enjoyed great success when the impresario, Dyagilev, included it in his Paris season of 1907.
Two years before Mlada, in 1898, The Tsar's Bride was completed. This is a story of murder and treachery, with a great deal of attractive music. The disc includes the Overture and an Intermezzo from the second act.
On the Tomb was dedicated to the memory of Mitrofan Belyayev, a name now totally forgotten. He not only financially helped composers of Rimsky-Korsakov's generation, but also set up a publishing house in Germany to print their music, so that it would be protected by international copyright, a feature ignored in Russia.
Greetings, a short and happy work, was Rimsky-Korsakov's contribution to the celebrations to mark 25 years of music by Glazunov.