|About this Recording
8.550501 - Orchestral Spectacular
Spain exercised a curious fascination over the nationalist composers of the nineteenth century, with a particular appeal in Russia, a country that was finding again its own identity in literature and music, after the Westernisation initiated by Peter the Great.
The French might be forgiven for a certain preoccupation with the very different traditional music of their geographical neighbours. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries offer various examples of this interest, from Saint-Saëns, Lalo and Bizet to Ravel and Debussy. Emmanuel Chabrier, like his Russian contemporaries, was intended by his family for a securer career than any that music could offer. He showed exceptional ability as a pianist as a child, but studied law and took employment in the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. It was not until 1880, eleven years after the death of his parents, that he became a full-time musician. His colourful orchestral piece Espana was written in the following year, its inspiration a visit to Spain. It has always enjoyed popularity, a success not shared by the dramatic works by which the composer set considerable store.
Rimsky-Korsakov's famous Capriccio espagnol began as a Fantasia on Spanish Themes for violin and orchestra, but was eventually completed in 1887 in its present form. Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to the musical generation after Glinka and once he had relinquished his original career as a naval officer devoted himself to the cause of Russian music with a professionalism that some of his contemporaries lacked. He was one of the five nationalist composers, Stasov's Mighty Handful, under the influence of Balakirev, and possessed particular ability in orchestration, a gift he was later to exercise in removing apparent crudities from the music of Mussorgsky and in completing what Borodin had left undone. He stressed that the brilliant Capriccio espagnol was intended as a display of orchestral colour, an aim which it achieves admirably.
The origin of the orchestral piece Night on the Bare Mountain lies in music written for a play, The Witch, by a friend from Mussorgsky's time in the army. The composer later had the idea of writing an opera on a story by Gogol, St. John's Eve. In 1867, dismissed for the moment from the civil service, he found the leisure to write an orchestral work based on the material he had composed to depict a witches' sabbath, held on the eve of the Feast of St. John, at mid-summer, on Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky was to make use of the same music five years later for an abortive stage-work, in which he collaborated with Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Cui.
As seems usual on these occasions, the witches' celebration starts with relative decorum, before proceeding to more characteristic activities. Throughout Mussorgsky derives his inspiration from Russian folk-song, an element never far from the musical idiom he employed. Borodin's professional career in chemistry left him relatively little time for music. His first symphony had occupied him intermittently between 1862 and 1867, while the second, started in 1869, reached its final form twelve years later. From 1870 onwards he worked at his opera Prince Igor, for which Stasov had sent him a scenario, writing music and words piece-meal, but without ever providing himself with a full libretto. At his death in 1887 the opera was still unfinished and was to be filled out by Rimsky-Korsakov and his young colleague Glazunov as best they could.
The Polovtsian Dances make up a sequence of choral dances in the second act of the opera, where they provide entertainment for the Tartar Khan's prisoners, Prince Igor and his son. The opening dance was orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and the remaining dances by the composer, all making use of rhythms of enormous vitality and melodic material that suggests vividly the scene in all its barbarous energy.
Ravel wrote the orchestral tour de force Bolero in 1928 for the dancer Ida Rubinstein, describing it on one occasion as an orchestrated crescendo and on another as "une blague" and yet again as "vide de musique". It is based on the insistent drum rhythm of an invented Spanish dance and won immediate popularity.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
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