Piers Burton-Page writes the preview notes for this concert.
Overture, Ruslan and Ludmilla – Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804 – 1857)
Glinka has a secure place in musical history, as the founder of Russian opera. Yet this is on the basis just of a pair of quite contrasted operas. What is more, it almost never happened, because the composer was initially so taken with the Italian operatic manner that in 1830, he went to Italy for a three-year period of study, intending to absorb all that he could of Italian music. Paradoxically, though, his stay in the warm South gradually had the opposite effect: it dawned on him that he would be truer to himself, and to his roots, if he were to mine all that his own native country could offer him by way of stories and folklore and musical traditions. The result was, first, A Life for the Tsar, in 1836, which was a triumphant success. Immediately thereafter, Glinka began work on a second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, after a Pushkin story with elements of the supernatural but set in the heroic past. Dramatically it was a disaster, largely because the libretto was put together by a succession of amateur hacks which Glinka spent five years composing. The result was an opera of brilliant moments, but one that is seldom performed outside Russia – except for its scintillating Overture, a brilliant orchestral showpiece that shows Glinka’s genius for the orchestra in full flood.
Piano Concerto no 3 in C, Op. 26 – Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
I – Andante – Allegro
II – Tema con variazioni
III – Allegro, ma non troppo
If Glinka is the father of Russian opera, then for the equivalent accolade for the Russian piano concerto, one does not have to look quite so far back. The palm must go to Tchaikovsky, though following close behind are the like of Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and even Scriabin with, a generation later, Shostakovich and Prokofiev in hot pursuit. These two were not always friendly rivals: both were however fine exponents of their own keyboard music. Prokofiev was the soloist at the premiere of his own Third Concerto, in December, 1921, with Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A decade later, Prokofiev also made a gramophone recording of the work, still a unique and invaluable document.
The Third Concerto was completed in the summer of 1921 in Brittany, finale, only briefly interrupted by a courtly minuet before a return to the opening theme heralds a final coda in which the home tonality of C is resoundingly re-affirmed. How Russian is that? Not very, perhaps – but the result is compellingly fresh and teeming with vitality.
Symphony no 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
I – Adagio – Allegro non troppo
II – Allegro con grazia
III – Allegro molto vivace
IV – Finale (Adagio lamentoso – Andante)
What makes a Russian symphony – or, at least, a Russian symphonist? It is astonishing to think that, even within living memory, Tchaikovsky has sometimes been denied the status of a genuine symphonic composer. Part of the problem was that he had the gift of writing unforgettable melodies! The fashionable dictum was that, in the words of one hostile critic, these “appear in full blossom, one by one, and there is very little that Tchaikovsky can do except arrange them artistically into a bouquet.” This slur was more than enough to lure too many people into thinking that all that Tchaikovsky’s music was good for, was dancing. Mesmerized by The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, even those who took him seriously were inclined to deny him an authentic sense of musical form – as if the five symphonies written before the present example were not sufficient refutation on their own.
Looked at in this unsympathetic light, it is true that this last of the six offers several hostages to fortune. Melodically the composer is certainly guilty as charged: one need not look very far, no further in fact than the passionate surging tune, marked teneramente, molto cantabile, con espressione, that forms the swooning second subject of the opening movement. And for another objection, the movement which follows might certainly be called balletic – except that, in a daring stroke, Tchaikovsky writes it, not in a waltz-time three-four, but in a teasing five-four. This is surely no ballroom party piece, as the uneasy mood of the movement’s central section confirms.
The boldest stroke is yet to come. Movements three and four stand symphonic orthodoxy on its head, placing the slow movement last, and preceding it with what might have been the finale – here, a pulsating march, that grows ever more insistent: almost violently so at times, in Tchaikovsky’s brilliant orchestration. More than one unwary audience has been tempted into premature applause….
This highly original reversal of slow movement and finale once again landed the composer in hot water; it made it fatally easy to interpret the Sixth Symphony in autobiographical terms. Given his personal circumstances at the time – not just artistic self-doubt, but hypochondria, incessant conducting tours interrupting his creative endeavours, even money worries – it became all too easy to see the finale’s outpouring of pain and despair as some sort of premonition of his own imminent demise.
For within ten days of conducting the première in St Petersburg in October 1898, Tchaikovsky was dead: whether this was by suicide, or from carelessly contracting cholera by drinking a glass of unboiled water, or even by some freakish combination of the two, may never be known for certain. He was in his prime, just 53 years old. The title Pathétique was supplied by his brother Modest; they were always close, and initially at least Tchaikovsky seems to have been happy to accept it, as perhaps the nearest single-word clue to the symphony’s overall concept. But had he lived, it would assuredly not have been his last word.