Thursday, December 19, 2002

Russian Romantic Composers, part two.

Yesterday I wrote in general about the Russian composers during the Romantic period, in an effort to place some of the artistic context of The Brothers Karamazov. Today, I'd like to discuss a few specific composers and works.

:: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky is the most famous name in Russian Romantic music, and with the possible exception of Igor Stravinsky he is probably the most famous Russian composer of all time. His music is imbued with the Russian character, and in his music one can most readily hear the qualities that distinguish the other Russian Romantics: sweeping, epic melodies; scherzos that are redolent of folk-dances; dramatic and fiery contrasts; evocative orchestrations. He is perhaps the quintessential Romantic: the tortured, emotional genius who poured all of his sufferings into his art, living a fairly unhappy life as a closeted homosexual before dying young of cholera. Tchaikovsky's music isn't strictly Nationalistic, but it is a natural extension of the Russian Nationalist masters who came before him.

His most famous works are the Romeo at Juliet Overture; the Piano Concerto No. 1; the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; and the great ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. I love all of the ballets, and of course no audiophile should be without a blistering, digital recording of the 1812 Overture to display the abilities of one's speakers. While I've never responded much to his symphonies, the Fifth is my favorite while the Fourth is the most Russian in character and the Sixth is the most blatantly emotional.

(The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recordings of the ballets, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, come in handsome boxed sets with cardboard cut-outs of the characters, folding backdrop sets, and illustrated liner notes that tell the story beautifully.)

:: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Not much of Rimsky-Korsakov's music is played today, but more's the pity as his music is often wonderful. According to Harold Schonberg, Rimsky-Korsakov was the most Nationalist of the Russian Romantics, so it's a bit ironic that he is primarily known for works that purport to depict lands other than Russia: the Capriccio Espagnol, inspired by Iberia, and the magnificent Scheherazade, which happens to be one of my favorite musical works of all time. He is also known for Flight of the Bumblebee, the Russian Easter Overture, and Tsar-Saltan.

(The best recordings of Scheherazade I've heard are the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.)

:: Modest Moussorgsky (1839-1881). Moussorgsky's most famous work, to regular listeners, is probably Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite for piano inspired by a series of paintings by an artist friend of the composer's who had died the year before. The work was later orchestrated by Ravel, and this orchestral version has become a standard in the standard concert repertoire. Almost as famous is his tone-poem Night on Bald Mountain, played most often in its form edited by Rimsky-Korsakov. Moussorgsky's masterpiece is his opera Boris Godunov, a work with which I am unfamiliar.

(The Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain are among the most frequently recorded works in the entire spectrum of classical music. On many CDs the works are paired together. The one I own is performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti.)

:: Vasili Kalinnikov (1866-1901). The history of any art is replete with names of promising artists whose youthful works, while rough and awkward, show flashes of brilliant talent that would never blossom because of a tragic, early death. Film actor James Dean may be the most famous example; in the case of the Russian Romantics, Kalinnikov's name is notable in this regard. (Mozart is not an example of this phenomenon; although he did indeed die young, his musical output is one of staggering genius with many works of transcendent perfection as opposed to promise of what might have been.) Kalinnikov is known by a handful of works, the best being his two symphonies. These works are loaded with beautiful melodies, powerful orchestral tuttis, delicate sonic structures in the slow movements, and thrilling cyclic constructions. The works have awkward transitions, and occasionally threaten to overstay their welcome, but to listen to these symphonies is to hear an uncommon musical mind at work and to wonder what that mind might have produced had it not perished too soon.

(Kalinnikov's two Symphonies are available on an excellent Naxos CD, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar. And since it's a Naxos CD, it can be had for less than ten bucks. Naxos rules!)

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