Saturday, November 7, 2015

Composing With a Russian Accent: The Orchestral Music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

 In some ways, the most “Russian” of all Russian composers is Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (the name alone would place him high on the list!), as he not only jumpstarted Russian orchestral music and opera, but he was deeply connected to the wellsprings of Russian folklore and literature. Rimsky-Korsakov’s work can be seen on some level as an attempt to translate the Russian spirit into purely musical terms, and his innovations have been followed by generations of Russian composers, not to mention film composers in Hollywood. It’s hard to truly pin down Rimsky’s compositional persona, as his greatest achievements—his 15 operas, on a range of fairy tale and historical subjects—are almost completely unknown in the West, while his memory lives on in a handful of orchestral gems which often disguise his Russian heritage, such as Capriccio Espagnol, Scheherazde, and the infamous Flight of the Bumblebee. Ultimately, what distinguishes Rimsky-Korsakov’s art is his masterful orchestration and sense of musical color: he believed strongly in the idea that notes represented colors, and clothed his music in the most lavish tonal raiment. Rachmaninov once said that with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music you could ‘hear’ the seasons, with the right combination of notes and instruments creating snowflakes, driving winds, budding trees, and falling leaves. He saved his greatest orchestral effects for his operas, where sadly few listeners are able to find them, though a few orchestral works betray this talent, even though his heart wasn’t always in ‘absolute’ music. However, even a lollipop of a piece like The Flight of the Bumblebee (a little interlude in his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan) is a masterful tone poem of sound and fury, suggesting how with the simplest of means he could conjure up an entire world, large or small.


Surprisingly, the one-time head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and Dean of Russian composers was virtually self-taught. A naval student, he began writing at a tender age, though put these thoughts aside when he went on his first voyages—one of which brought him to America during the Civil War. Upon his return, he fell in with Mily Balakirev, the grandmaster of Russian musicians in the mid-19th century. Balakriev, also self-taught, decided to form a band of composers who would become the first rank of Russian artists following in the example of the dilettante-composer, Mikhail Glinka (who wrote the first notable Russian operas). Members of this band, called “The Mighty Handful,” included Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and the one man whose name didn’t attain immortality, Cesar Cui (coincidentally, he was Russian by way of Belgium). Rimsky dutifully composed his First Symphony under Balakirev’s guidance, and Cui (more a music critic than a composer) immediately hailed it the first Russian symphony...though Anton Rubinstein had already composed his First Symphony (but he didn’t count; he was Conservative and a Jew—Balakirev was notorious for his anti-semitism). Rimsky went from strength to strength with works like the Fantasia on Serbian Themes, Symphony No.2 “Antar” (which he later demoted to a symphonic suite), and his tone poem, Sadko.


On the strength of these works, the St. Petersburg Conservatory offered him a professorship: horrified, but unable to refuse, Rimsky set about learning all the ins-and-outs of music theory so he could stay one step ahead of his students. In the end, he became his greatest pupil, and his music became more polished and classically balanced, leading to a stream of masterpieces such as the tone poem Skazka, the suite Scheherazade (which is as much a 4-movement symphony as “Antar”), The Russian Easter Overture, and Capriccio Espagnol. Around this time he broke with Balakirev and started composing operas, which he felt was his true compositional calling. These made his name in Russia, and until his death in 1908, each premier was a grand affair, influencing not only his own students, but a host of European composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Respighi, and Bax. While an active professor, he oversaw the training of such giants as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, as well as many lesser composers such as Glazunov, Liadov, Arensky, Gliere, and Ippolitov-Ivanov. Even the great Italian composer Respighi made the pilgrimage to St. Petersburg expressly to study with him, and the master’s influence can be heard throughout his major works, such as The Pines of Rome.

Rimsky-Korsakov refuted the old line that “those who can’t, teach,” since he could, and did, but also became a fine teacher, and wrote a famous book on orchestration which taught generations of students long after his death. Far from being the teacher who merely stumbles into class to give a distracted lecture, he was a commanding presence, and Prokofiev would later recall his classroom refrain of “Understand?” Indeed, his devotion to his students went far beyond the classroom: in 1905, he joined a general student strike against the government, which led to his termination and a general ban on his music. Undeterred, he continued lessons in his home until the ban was lifted and his professorship reinstated by his former pupil, Glazunov, who took control of the Conservatory. Though he died only a few years later, he had time to squeeze out a few more operas, including his last, The Golden Cockerel, whose harmonies profoundly influenced his leading student of the next generation, Igor Stravinsky, when he set down to write his first ground-breaking score, The Firebird.


Rimsky-Korsakov’s service to music didn’t end with his students, but also consisted of thankless editorial work, chiefly with the music of his comrades in the “Mighty Five.” Most of the Five were hopeless dilettantes when it came to music, though all were uniquely gifted, none more so than Modest Mussorgsky. However, the poor man was something of a drunk, and had a devil of a time finishing a score, particularly when his ambition exceeded his technical abilities. His famous opera, Boris Gudunov, was left in shambles after his death, and it was up to Rimsky-Korsakov to edit and fine-tune it, and it is this version which still holds the stage today (though some feel he “cleaned it up” too much and have made their own editions, notably the Soviet composer, Dimitri Shostakovich). Perhaps his greatest editorial work is seen on another Mussorgsky score, Night on Bald Mountain, which Rimsky more or less re-composed. The original score, which is occasionally played and recorded, is raw and spare, powerful in its own right, but somewhat crude. Rimsky-Korsakov edited the work with an eye toward Berlioz, making it sound much more like the Witches Sabbath from his Symphony Fantastique. However, the result is something infinitely more massive, and the themes reek of sinister pagan rites—no doubt Stravinsky had this in mind when he wrote The Rite of Spring. But Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t stop at smoothing out the textures and making them ‘sound’ properly—he also composed a completely new ending to the piece, the calm, hymn-like appearance of dawn that banishes the demons back to the mountain. It’s a uniquely satisfying ending, though Mussorgsky might not have approved—and nor do dozens of musical purists. No matter, Rimsky-Korsakov’s version still holds sway. Rimsky-Korsakov also put the manuscripts of his good friend, Alexander Borodin, in order, putting minor touches on his gorgeous Second Symphony, as well as cobbling together—with the help of Glazunov—his unfinished opera, Prince Igor.


In recent decades, Rimsky-Korsakov has been overshadowed by Tchaikovsky, who is perhaps the greater musical genius, and even in his lifetime, he often stood in that master’s shadow. However, the composers together represent key aspects of the Russian character: Tchaikovsky embodies the brooding melancholy and psychological introspection we find in Dostoevsky and Chekhov, while Rimsky-Korsakov offers up the bright colors and fantastic stories of Russian legend which we find in Pushkin and Gogol. You rarely find Rimsky’s music without a certain smile on its face, even in its darker moments, as it positively delights in being music. While obvious comparisons to his music can be made with Berlioz, in many ways Rimsky-Korsakov is more like Haydn: both had an inexhaustible fund of melodies and ideas, yet both were extraordinarily creative within a relatively small sphere. Haydn cranked out over 100 symphonies in his career, hardly repeating an idea twice, while Rimsky-Korsakov wrote one colorful suite after another, always finding a new coloration, or a new way to add a foreign ‘accent’ to the notes. Indeed, he might be the first true Nationalist composer, as his music not only sounds Russian, but also Arabian, or Polish, or Spanish. Whenever you hear the fragrant works of Albeniz, de Falla, Szymanowski, or Khachaturian, you can also hear, more or less faintly, the music of Rimsky-Korsakov behind it.


So where to start with his music? Here are 5 discs that give the masterpieces and the lesser-known works a proper airing. Start with this great performance of his masterpiece, Scheherazade, which is a four-movement suite retelling, in a vague manner, episodes from the Tales from the 1,001 Nights. In many ways, it is symphonic in its use of motifs that are transformed throughout the score, though it avoids the sonata-development we see in a more traditional symphony (but then, so do most 20th century symphonies). It’s a long work that seems to go by in a flash since Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical storytelling is so vivid: you can almost see Scheherazade’s storytelling fade into a far-off scene of Sinbad, or a prince riding on the back of a roc (a giant eagle). As Russia is right on the threshold of the East and West, Rimsky-Korsakov exploits the general feel of the “Orient” in this score, sometimes with a sinuous Arabian melody, but often simply with the orchestration—the drone of a bassoon, for instance, sounding like the muezinn’s call to prayer. While this is hardly authentic Arabic music, it is infinitely closer than what passed for the Orient in contemporary European operas, and more importantly, it captures a “never-never land” atmosphere which is certainly present in the 1,001 Nights.

The following version played by Enrique Batiz, a magnificent Mexican conductor, captures the flair and sparkle of the piece without forsaking any of its emotional depth (particularly in the 3rd movement). The Philharmonia is on top form, and the disc is coupled with a fittingly exotic suite from his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, which is based on a poem from Pushkin. These three “Orchestral Pictures,” as he called them, at times even rival Scheherazade in their dazzling colors. The first movement is a jaunty march, the second movement depicts a maiden trapped in a barrel and cast into the sea, with its stormy waves and desperation (no worries, she’s delivered safely on shore), and the third movement depicts several ‘fairy tale’ episodes, notably an army of knights who emerge from the waves to assault the forces on shore. Find it here:

Or, you can start with this great compilation, only $3.99, which collects some older, but fiery performances of Scheherazade played by Andrew Litton, as well as his other two masterpieces, The Russian Easter Overture (which depicts a Russian church service in gloriously hyperbolic terms) and his fantasia on Spanish themes, the Capriccio Espagnol

If you’re looking for his some of his more out-of-the-way works, particularly the suites from the operas, a great place to start in this excellent Vox Box disc which collects performances from the 70’s. Most are from second-string orchestras such as the Philharmonia Hungarica and the Bochum Symphony, but they are played with gusto and far surpass many a greater orchestra playing by rote. This disc includes some extraordinary rarities, each of them a little masterpiece: his suites from the operas The Invisible City of Kitzeh, Christmas Eve (based on a story from Gogol), Mlada (a series of Nutcracker-like dances), as well as the overture to May Night (also from Gogol), and the symphonic poems Sadko (on an old Russian bylina), Skazka (loosely based on Pushkin), and the Overture on Russian Themes. For good measure, two of his rare concertante works are included, the one-movement, 15-minute Piano Concerto (the piano in this recording is a little clangy, but it’s still a rollicking good performance) and the Fantasia on Russian Themes for Violin and Orchestra, which is as sadly neglected party piece every bit the equal of works by Saraste and Saint-Saens.

Some even rarer Rimsky comes via this Marco Polo disc from the late 80s which features two unsung masterpieces: Night on Mt. Triglav, a longer, more diffuse response to Night on Bald Mountain which he composed for the opera Mlada, and his suite of nocturnes and dances from the Polish-inspired opera, Pan Voyevoda. It’s a crime that the latter work remains unknown, as it’s incredibly beautiful and catchy—one jaunty tune after another, very much in the vein of Smetana’s or Dvorak’s dances. Night on Mt. Triglav is a fascinating work as well, full of mysterious twists and turns, and something of a precursor to The Firebrd (showing that early Stravinsky was more a skilled mimic than a true innovator):

Finally, you want to get to know Rimsky’s early masterpiece, the symphony—or is it a suite?—Antar. The “symphony” is based on an Arabian folktale and is usually considered his Second of three symphonies. In one sense it can be seen as a trial run for Scheherazade, but it stands on its own, too. Each movement has its own character: the first is dark and mysterious, the second a volatile scherzo, the third an Oriental march (almost exactly like the march from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.2), and the fourth a melodic, dirge-like finale. Rimsky fretted over this work throughout his career, revising it three times, and eventually calling it a “symphonic suite.” It’s easily the best of his three symphonies, though the others have considerable charms: the First is a rollicking apprentice piece, which sounds a little like Schumann with a Russian accent, particularly in the fiery opening movement. The second movement offers variations on a solemn Russian theme, and the third and fourth movements are spirited allegros. His most neglected score is his Third Symphony, written when he was in the first flush of academia: indeed, Borodin dismissed it as “Eine Grosse Symphonie,” much like a German professor would write for his students. Rimsky saw the wisdom in this, and later revised much of the academia out of it. Now it sounds almost exactly like the First, though it’s a little more sure of itself, and it covers more territory with more originality. The first movement is also very Schumannesque, thought he second is quite striking, with a moody trio which borders on the macabre. The slow movement is gentleness itself, an almost Classical set of variations, leading into the triumphant Finale, which is rousing and inspiring. Though he could never boast of being a true symphonist like Tchaikovsky (or even Glazunov), he could certainly write a respectable one when the need arose. This excellent disc by Dimitri Kitaenko and the Bergen Philharmonic give life to the symphonies, and add some of the orchestral works and the much-neglected Piano Concerto into the bargain:

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