Our Russian Festival continues today as guest conductor Stefan Asbury leads the orchestra in music by Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov. The stellar pianist Joyce Yang joins them for Tchaikovsky’s show-stopping Piano Concerto No. 1.
(Born 18 March 1844; Tikhvin, Russia; Died 21 June 1908; Lybensk, Russia)
First performance: 15 December 1888; St. Petersburg, Russia
Last MSO performance: June 2000; Andrews Sill, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo); 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, tam tam, triangle); harp; strings
Most classical music enthusiasts know Rimsky-Korsakov primarily by three pieces: the Capriccio espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and Scheherazade, all written within a span of less than two years (1887-88). Though the composer was only in his mid-40s, they became virtually his last essays in purely orchestral music, for in 1889 he decided to expend most of his creative energy writing opera.
Rimsky-Korsakov had piano lessons from age six and had composed some pieces for that instrument, but his heart was not set on music. His ambition was a naval career, in emulation of his much older brother Voin. Accordingly, he enrolled in the College of Naval Cadets in St. Petersburg. There, he continued to take lessons and was a decent enough pianist and an earnest, if unschooled, composer. In December 1861, his piano teacher, Théodore Canille, introduced him to the composer Mily Balakirev. The still-teenaged Rimsky-Korsakov immediately fell under the spell of the fiery Balakirev, who encouraged the naval officer to pursue a career as a composer, though the latter had no formal training. He taught himself orchestration and, while still in the navy, completed a symphony, a tone poem, and an opera. (His autodidacticism was so thorough that he later wrote a book, The Principles of Orchestration, which is still in use today.)
Rimsky-Korsakov based the Overture on melodies taken from the Obikhod, a sort of Russian Orthodox Liber usualis. In the preface to the score, he quoted verses from Psalm 68 and St. Mark’s gospel (chapter 16), and added a few lines of his own. The latter, referencing a more primeval springtime symbolism, reflect his essentially pantheistic beliefs.
In his autobiography, My Musical Life, the composer offered the following program note:
This legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture… The rather lengthy slow introduction… on the theme “Let God arise” [woodwinds], alternating with the ecclesiastical melody “An angel cried out” [solo cello], appeared to me, in the beginning, as it were, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah of the Resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the Holy Sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the Resurrection, in the transition to the Allegro of the overture. The beginning of the Allegro, the theme “Let them also that hate Him flee before Him,” led to the holiday mood of the Greek Orthodox service on Christ's matins; the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel was replaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, almost dance-like tolling of bells, alternating now with the sexton’s rapid reading and now with the conventional chant of the priest's reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme “Christ is arisen,” which forms a sort of subsidiary part of the overture, appears amid the trumpet blasts and the bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.
Recommended recording: Neeme Järvi, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
(Born 7 May 1840; Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia; Died 6 November 1893; St. Petersburg, Russia)
Composed: 1874-75; revised in 1876 and 1889
First performance: 25 October 1875; Boston, Massachusetts
Last MSO performance: June 2016; Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor; Joyce Yang, piano
Instrumentation: 2 flutes; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani; strings
Surely one of the most beloved 19th-century piano concertos in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 was penned in 1874-75, between the composition of the Third and Fourth Symphonies. Originally intended for Nicolai Rubinstein, the head of the Moscow Conservatory, who had encouraged Tchaikovsky to write the work, it was dedicated to and premiered by Hans von Bülow after Rubinstein rejected it as unplayable. (He later recanted and was counted among its most distinguished interpreters.)
One of the greatest pianists of his day, Bülow was also a composer and conductor. He was a champion of the music of Wagner and, later, of Brahms. In the spring of 1875, Tchaikovsky sent the concerto to him and soon received a warm response, with sincere gratitude for the dedication:
Perhaps it would be presumptuous on my part, being unfamiliar with the whole scope of your works and prodigious talent, to say that for me your Opus 23 displays such brilliance, and is such a remarkable achievement among your musical works, that you have without doubt enriched the world of music as never before. There is such unsurpassed originality, such nobility, such strength, and there are so many arresting moments throughout this unique conception; there is such a maturity of form, such style – its design and execution, with such consonant harmonies, that I could weary you by listing all the memorable moments which caused me to thank the author – not to mention the pleasure from performing it all. In a word, this true gem shall earn you the gratitude of all pianists.
Bülow was eager to unveil the concerto on his upcoming American tour. It stretches the imagination to learn that this über-Russian concerto was premiered in Boston, played by a German pianist on an American Chickering piano accompanied by an orchestra of Massachusetts freelancers conducted by a long-forgotten American maestro (Benjamin Johnson Lang). The piece was a source of excitement throughout the tour, and it remains so today.
It’s difficult to improve on Bülow’s description. As he noted, the concerto contrasts music of heroic strength and grandeur with soaring lyrical melodies. The deservedly famous opening pages – with the orchestra’s fortissimo theme, the piano’s crashing chords and cadenza-like passages – are followed by gentler melodies that mine the qualities of Slavic folk music. A solo flute introduces the romantic theme of the Andantino. A change of tempo and a dance-like melody provide contrast; a return to the initial material shapes the movement into a gratifying three-part form. Slavic flavor – and fervor – permeates the finale, a virtuosic showpiece that unquestionably delighted its dedicatee and an East Coast audience – one autumn evening during the Ulysses S. Grant administration.
Recommended recording: Martha Argerich; Kirill Kondrashin, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Decca)
(Born 23 April 1891; Sontsovka, Russia; Died 5 March 1953; Moscow, Russia)
First performance: 17 May 1929; Paris, France
Last MSO performance: MSO premire
Instrumentation: 2 flutes; piccolo; 2 oboes; English horn; 2 clarinets; bass clarinet; 2 bassoons; contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; percussion (bass drum; castanets, chimes, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine); 2 harps; strings
Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 dates from the time he was living in Paris. Previously, following the Russian Revolution, he had spent several years in the United States, where his opera The Love for Three Oranges had its successful premiere in Chicago in 1921. While in the U.S., he had begun work on another opera, The Fiery Angel. When soprano Mary Garden, his foremost supporter, resigned her directorship of the Chicago Opera, his hopes for a performance of The Fiery Angel were dashed. He departed for Europe “with a thousand dollars in my pocket and an aching head,” he said.
After conductor Bruno Walter scheduled performances of The Fiery Angel in Berlin, the composer spent several months in 1926 reconfiguring its dramatic structure and revising its music. Though the Berlin production was postponed indefinitely, Serge Koussevitsky led a concert performance of the second act in Paris in June 1928. Ultimately, Prokofiev never saw a full performance of The Fiery Angel during his lifetime. It was first staged in Venice, sung in Italian, in 1955. Its topics include demons, exorcism, orgies, and occultism.
Rather than construct an orchestral suite from the opera, Prokofiev – who placed high value on its music – decided to develop the thematic material into a symphony. His Opus 44 is a turbulent, bold, and intricate work, one whose drama and intensity betray its operatic origins. The composer rightly thought it to be one of his best efforts.
Crashing chords, clanking bells, and a general sense of unrest open the sonata-form Moderato. Strings and horns intone the first theme, an impassioned diatonic melody. The forlorn second theme is sounded by the bassoons and lower strings and, in the development section, a third theme is added. Huge orchestral chords and marching rhythms lead to the movement’s climax. The recapitulation, with its gentle ostinato figures, is more ethereal and concludes with the sepulchral tones of the contrabassoon. The lyrical Andante, set in ternary form, features an introspective string chorale, transparent textures, and a brooding middle section whose theme is built on half-steps.
The dazzling third movement is in the form of a diabolical scherzo. Overall, there’s a sense of foreboding as agitated strings, brass choir, and bass drum add to the chilling effect. The nearly deranged final movement reprises themes from the opening Moderato. It begins as an ominous Andante march that slowly gains speed, building to a cataclysmic climax of frighteningly violent power.
Recommended recording: Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.