TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 / Romeo and Juliet (Colorado Symphony Orchestra/ Karen Chester/ Marin Alsop) (Naxos: 8.555714)
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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 Ivanovich 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 Russian national consciousness developed, a change in attitude evident in literature, with the great novelists and poets of the period, in the visual arts, which have travelled abroad less satisfactorily, and, above all, in music. Under Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, Russia had looked to the West, a fact that the geographical choice of capital, St. Petersburg, and the cultural and political life of the time illustrates well enough. In the nineteenth century there were again those who looked West to Germany for a musical model to follow, while others, in particular the so-called Mighty Handful grouped around Balakirev, chose a very different course. The cosmopolitan tendency is clearly seen in the case of Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, an institution that earned the initial hostility of the nationalists, with their inspired amateurism.
The Mighty Handful, Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Borodin, Musorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the most Russian of the Russian composers, were inspired by the example of Glinka to attempt the composition of music of national inspiration. Glinka had had some professional training in Germany and Balakirev too was a professional musician. The other later members of the group, however, had, at first, other careers. Cesar Cui remained a professor of military fortification, Borodin was a noted chemist, teaching at the Medico-Surgical Academy, Musorgsky was an army officer and later an alcoholically incompetent civil servant, while Rimsky-Korsakov. started his career as a naval officer. These preoccupations seem to justify Rubinstein's description of the nationalist composers as amateurs, while the enthusiasm of the Five for things Russian seemed to them to justify their criticism of Rubinstein and the Conservatory as in some way un-Russian, a jibe not without anti-semitic implications.
During the course of the century the conservatories established in St. Petersburg and Moscow did provide Russian musicians with the kind of technical proficiency that they needed, enabling later generations to combine sound technical competence with nationalist ideals. Tchaikovsky was among the first students in St. Petersburg, and was later to teach for some ten years at the parallel institution in Moscow. The amateur pioneers, much of whose work was left unfinished, had provided an example and an inspiration. It was left to Rimsky-Korsakov and his young pupil Glazunov to edit and complete compositions undertaken by Borodin and Musorgsky, while Cui, who lived until 1918, turned his 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 Russian festival, was born on his family's estate near Smolensk and brought up at first by his grandmother. His schooling in St. Petersburg brought him into wider contact with Western music and his later career, initially with a government sinecure in the Ministry of Communications,. allowed him to pursue a somewhat irregular course of musical activity as a composer and as a drawing-room performer. Travel to Italy and later to Germany gave him an opportunity to broaden his experience still further, and to acquire, through lessons with Siegfried Dehn in Berlin, some technical competence as a composer.
In 1834, on the death of his father, Glinka returned to Russia, already entertaining thoughts of composing really Russian music. By 1836 he had completed an opera that he had at first called Ivan Susanin, later to be known as A Life for the Tsar. The work, based on historical events of 1612, when the Russian Susanin was instrumental in saving the new Romanov Tsar from the Polish army, established Glinka's reputation as the leading Russian composer of the time. Promoted to the position of Kapelimeister to the Tsar, he proceeded to write a second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, based on a poem by Pushkin, a Persian fairy-tale in which the heroine, Ludmilla, is abducted by a wicked dwarf, but is finally rescued by her beloved Ruslan. At its first performance in 1842 the work was not well received, but grew in favour as time went on. The brilliant overture remains a popular 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, where he was able to collect useful melodic material for the later use of himself and others at home. During the course of his stay abroad he wrote the famous orchestral piece Kamarinskaya, which makes use of the simplest of Russian melodies in a remarkably imaginative way and with orchestra that was to serve as a model long after his death in Berlin in 1856. By the next generation of Russian composers Glinka was to be long respected both as a pioneer in Russian musical nationalism and, in any case, for his lasting achievement as a composer.
Rimsky-Korsakov, once he had given up his career as a navel officer to become an inspector of naval bands, became possibly the strongest of first following the example of Glinka and later failing to some extent under the Wagnerian spell, and taught for a number of years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where his pupils were to include Stravinsky and Prokofiev. It was left to him to tidy up the works left unfinished by Borodin and Musorgsky, both of whom died relatively young, and it was with his pupil Glazunov that he dealt with the former's unfinished opera Prince Igor. The overture, indeed, was once said to have been written out from memory by Glazunov who had once heard Borodin 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 had often been slight.Rimsky-Korsakov's own Russian Easter Overture, written in 1886, avowedly orchestrated in the style of Glinka, is based on liturgical themes, a description that does little justice to the lyricism and excitement of the work, seen rather as a fantasy than a formal overture. Tsar Alexander III, who had little taste for Russian music of this kind, forbade any repetition of the piece in his hearing, after he had heard its first performance. The programme of the work is explained by the inclusion of quotations from Psalm LXVIII and from St. Mark's account of the Passion in the score. The all too well known Flight of the Bumblebee, familiar in many virtuoso arrangements for the most unlikely instruments, has its origin in an interlude in the opera The Legend of Tsar Saltan. A prince, with the magic help of a swan, turns into a bee & seizes the opportunity to sting his two unpleasant and jealous aunts, wh