Russian Festival (Anthony Bramall/ Gunter Appenheimer/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550085)
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Aram Il'yich Khachaturian (1903 - 1978)
Sabre Dance from Gayane
Alexander Porfir'yevich Borodin (1833 - 1887)
Overture to Prince Igor
Reyngol'd Moritsevich Gliere (1875 - 1956)
Russian Sailors' Dance
Mikhail lvanovich Glinka (1804 - 1857)
Overture to Ruslan & Ludmilla
Overture to A Life for the Tsar
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 -1908)
Flight of the Bumblebee
Russian Easter Overture
It was during the course of the nineteenth century that Russiannational consciousness developed, a change in attitude evident in literature,with the great novelists and poets of the period, in the visual arts, whichhave travelled abroad less satisfactorily, and, above all, in music. UnderPeter the Great in the early eighteenth century, Russia had looked to the West,a fact that the geographical choice of capital, St. Petersburg, and thecultural and political life of the time illustrates well enough. In thenineteenth century there were again those who looked West to Germany for amusical model to follow, while others, in particular the so-called MightyHandful grouped around Balakirev, chose a very different course. Thecosmopolitan tendency is clearly seen in the case of Anton Rubinstein, founderof the St. Petersburg Conservatory, an institution that earned the initialhostility of the nationalists, with their inspired amateurism.
The Mighty Handful, Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Borodin, Musorgsky andRimsky-Korsakov, the most Russian of the Russian composers, were inspired bythe example of Glinka to attempt the composition of music of nationalinspiration. Glinka had had some professional training in Germany and Balakirevtoo was a professional musician. The other later members of the group, however,had, at first, other careers. Cesar Cui remained a professor of militaryfortification, Borodin was a noted chemist, teaching at the Medico-SurgicalAcademy, Musorgsky was an army officer and later an alcoholically incompetentcivil servant, while Rimsky-Korsakov started his career as a naval officer.
These preoccupations seem to justify Rubinstein's description of thenationalist composers as amateurs, while the enthusiasm of the Five for thingsRussian seemed to them to justify their criticism of Rubinstein and theConservatory as in some way un-Russian, a jibe not without anti-semiticimplications.
During the course of the century the conservatories established in St.
Petersburg and Moscow did provide Russian musicians with the kind of technicalproficiency that they needed, enabling later generations to combine soundtechnical competence with nationalist ideals. Tchaikovsky was among the firststudents in St. Petersburg, and was later to teach for some ten years at theparallel institution in Moscow. The amateur pioneers, much of whose work wasleft unfinished, had provided an example and an inspiration. It was left toRimsky-Korsakov and his young pupil Glazunov to edit and complete compositionsundertaken by Borodin and Musorgsky, while Cui, who lived until 1918, turnedhis attention to miniatures, after years spent as a part-time critic,castigating the works of those he regarded as failing the Russian ideal,including some of the music of Tchaikovsky and most of that of Rubinstein.
Glinka, the oldest of the composers represented in the present Russianfestival, was born on his family's estate near Smolensk and brought up at firstby his grandmother. His schooling in St. Petersburg brought him into widercontact with Western music and his later career, initially with a governmentsinecure in the Ministry of Communications, allowed him to pursue a somewhatirregular course of musical activity as a composer and as a drawing-roomperformer. Travel to Italy and later to Germany gave him an opportunity tobroaden his experience still further, and to acquire, through lessons withSiegfried Dehn in Berlin, some technical competence as a composer.
In 1834, on the death of his father, Glinka returned to Russia, alreadyentertaining thoughts of composing really Russian music. By 1836 he hadcompleted an opera that he had at first called Ivan Susanin, later to be knownas A Life for the Tsar. The work,based on historical events of 1612, when the Russian Susanin was instrumentalin saving the new Romanov Tsar from the Polish army, established Glinka'sreputation as the leading Russian composer of the time. Promoted to theposition of Kapellmeister to the Tsar, he proceeded to write a second opera,Ruslan and Ludmilla, based on a poem by Pushkin, a Persian fairy-tale in whichthe heroine, Ludmilla, is abducted by a wicked dwarf, but is finally rescued byher beloved Ruslan. At its first performance in 1842 the work was not wellreceived, but grew in favour as time went on. The brilliant overture remains apopular concert item.
In 1844 Glinka travelled abroad once again, meeting Berlioz in Paris,where his music was greeted with some enthusiasm, and going on to Spain, wherehe was able to collect useful melodic material for the later use of himself andothers at home. During the course of his stay abroad he wrote the famousorchestral piece Kamarinskaya,which makes use of the simplest of Russian melodies in a remarkably imaginativeway and with orchestra that was to serve as a model long after his death inBerlin in 1856. By the next generation of Russian composers Glinka was to belong respected both as a pioneer in Russian musical nationalism and, in anycase, for his lasting achievement as a composer.
Rimsky-Korsakov, once he had given up his career as a navel officer tobecome an inspector of naval bands, became possibly the strongest of firstfollowing the example of Glinka and later falling to some extent under theWagnerian spell, and taught for a number of years at the St. PetersburgConservatory, where his pupils were to include Stravinsky and Prokofiev. It wasleft to him to tidy up the works left unfinished by Borodin and Musorgsky, bothof whom died relatively young, and it was with his pupil Glazunov that he dealtwith the former's unfinished opera Prince Igor. The overture, indeed, was oncesaid to have been written out from memory by Glazunov who had once heardBorodin play it through on the piano.
According to his student Dmitry Shostakovich, Glazunov, in his cups,was later to admit that the overture was not written out from memory at all,but simply composed for Borodin, whose application to the task in hand hadoften been slight.
Rimsky-Korsakov's own Russian EasterOverture, written in 1886, avowedly orchestrated in the style ofGlinka, is based on liturgical themes, a description that does little justiceto the lyricism and excitement of the work, seen rather as a fantasy than aformal overture. Tsar Alexander III, who had little taste for Russian music ofthis kind, forbade any repetition of the piece in his hearing, after he hadheard its first performance. The programme of the work is explained by theinclusion of quotations from Psalm LXVIII and from St. Mark's account of thePassion in the score. The all too well known Flight of the Bumblebee, familiarin many virtuoso arrangements for the most unlikely instruments, has its originin an interlude in the opera The Legend of Tsar Saltan. A prince, with themagic help of a swan, turns into a bee & seizes the opportunity to stinghis two unpleasant and jealous aunts, who had plotted his death and that of hismother, the Tsaritsa.