Columbus Symphony Performs Music from Russia

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Left); Igor Stravinsky (Right).(Photo: http://www.wikipedia.org/)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Left); Igor Stravinsky (Right).(Photo: http://www.wikipedia.org/)

The Columbus Symphony presents “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1″ and “1812 Overture” the first two weeks in January.

On the “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1″ program: Enrique Arturo Diemecke conducts Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture on Russian Themes, Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor with pianist Vladimir Feltsman.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Influence

Rimsky-Korsakov esteemed Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) so much that he spent much of his career re-orchestrating Mussorgsky’s operas.

Boris Godunov was the first Russian opera to be performed internationally, usually in Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition. The choral sequence in the coronation scene, with its repeated cries of “Slava!” (“Glory!”), is the first of three themes woven together by Rimsky-Korsakov in his Overture on Russian Themes.

It was from Rimsky-Korsakov that Stravinsky learned the full color of possibilities with an orchestra, putting the sensuality of sound often ahead of form.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka

By the time Stravinsky wrote his ballet Petrushka for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes in 1911, he was considered a renegade, a flaunter of convention, a composer steeped in erotic rhythms. (Why not, when he was writing for dance?).

Petrushka irritated early listeners. Stravinsky, who was twenty-nine when he wrote it, was either capitalizing on, or trying to live down his enfant terrible label. It was fashionable in Paris to boo and decry Stravinsky’s music, while snapping up tickets to his concerts. He played to full houses — tributes to his own skill and Diaghilev’s brilliant showmanship.

Stravinsky intended his Petrushka to be entertaining, and made no apologies for the dancing bears and wet nurses (!) featured in Michel Fokine’s choreography.

Petrushka is a Russian folk tale about a puppet who falls in love with a ballerina — his colleague in a circus sideshow. But she’s seduced by a vengeful moor and Petrushka ends up with the stuffing torn out of him (literally).

The setting for Petrushka is the Shrovetide carnival, a perfect opportunity for that dancing bear, not to mention gypsies, coachmen and jugglers. And the first Petrushka was the sensation of the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev’s lover was the brilliant twenty year old Vaclav Nijinsky.

Petrushka‘s jagged off-beats, its syncopation and its color was a preview of the earthy Russian that would inflame the world two years later in The Rite of Spring. But Petrushka, for all its sophistication, is still a folk tale, danced as entertainment.

Here’s Nureyev, generations after Nijinsky and Fokine:

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor

Tchaikovsky had high hopes for his first piano concerto. By 1874, the composer was in the middle of a twelve year period that saw some of his finest works, including his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin.

He would work on his first piano concerto throughout 1874, and was deeply admiring of his own efforts – which was unusual for this composer. He agreed to an ‘audition’ of his work at the Moscow Conservatory in December.

Nikolai Rubinstein

Nikolai Rubinstein and his brother, Anton, were world class pianists (Anton was something of a superstar) and the most influential musicians in Russia at that time. It seems odd today, but in 1874, Tchaikovsky needed Nikolai’s approbation, since the composer was likewise Rubinstein’s employee at the Moscow Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky himself tells us what happened at this audition:

“‘Well?’, said I, as I arose. Then there burst from Rubinstein’s mouth a might torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first, then he waxed hot, and finally he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts. It seems that my concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages were so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole as bad, trivial and vulgar … ‘I shall not alter a single note,’ I replied. ‘I shall have the concerto printed exactly as it stands.’  That is in fact, what I have done.”

It was something for the deeply insecure Tchaikovsky to stand up to Nikolai Rubinstein. Although the composer made a few minor revisions, he was so put off by his colleague’s reaction that he gave the premiere of the work, not to St. Petersburg, Moscow, or even London, but to Boston.

Here’s the finale with another Rubinstein:

Hans von Bulow

Ultimately, Tchaikovsky gave the work to a pianist more famous than Rubinstein, Hans von Bulow. The Boston premiere on October 25, 1875 was a sensational hit.

“Think what appetites these Americans have!”, exulted the composer. “Each time Bulow was obliged to repeat the whole finale of my concerto! Nothing like that happens in our country.”

Bulow wrote home after performing the Concerto in New York:

“Tchaikovsky is popular in the New World, and if Jurgenson (Tchaikovsky’s publisher) were not such a damned jackass but would send over a reasonable quantity of Tchaikovsky’s music, he could do a lot of business!”

What the Bostonians heard were indeed Zeus’s thunderbolts. Musical thunderbolts. The dramatic opening of the work is instantly recognizable today to people who care nothing for Tchaikovsky.

It was these first pages that so enraged Nikolai Rubinstein. He thought the piano was banging away. He missed the tight structure of classical form of Mozart (revered of course by Tchaikovsky) He seems to denigrate the integration of the piano into the orchestral fabric, rather than having it set apart, at least in this beginning:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scm4eUORJ2s

What Tchaikovsky also does is maintain a propulsive forward momentum. Every bar of this concerto (IMHO) looks forward to what is going to happen next!

To think that this feverish work, with a sublime second movement is the product of a man struggling with his homosexuality in an unforgiving environment.

Success followed success in spite of the composer’s inner torment: Eugene Onegin, Pique Dame, Pathetique, Nutcracker — plus a triumphant tour of America in 1891 set the seal on Tchaikovsky’s worldwide fame.

The facts surrounding his sudden death two years later remain a sad mystery. But that is another story.

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