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8.220308 - CUI: Suite Concertante Op. 25 / Suite Miniature Op. 20
César Cui (1835–1918)
The nineteenth century was a period of increasing nationalism, reflected in Russia by a group of composers known variously as the Balakirev circle, the Petersburg group, the new Russian school, or, in the words of the contemporary critic Vladimir Stasov, the “Might Handful” (moguchaya kuchka). Abroad Balakirev’s collaborators have been collectively known as “the Five”.
The first Tsar of All the Russias, Peter the Great, had forced the country to become European in outlook, a policy carried out with ruthless severity. German influence continued in Russian music in the following century, represented most effectively by Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and a critic of the amateur nationalists under the influence of Balakirev.
The “Mightly Handful”, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui, were, in some senses, amateurs. Mussorgsky managed to retain a position in the civil service for most of his adult life, in spite of his intemperate habits; Borodin was a distinguished chemist; Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, and César Cui an expert on military fortifications. Nevertheless, in spite of certain technical deficiencies, each in his own different way was able to add to the development of a peculiarly Russian kind of music, following the example of the pioneer Glinka.
César Cui was the son of a French army officer, who chose to remain in Russia after the defeat of Napoleon and the retreat from Moscow. His mother was Lithuanian, and Cui was brought up in the town of his birth, Vilnius, where his father, like that other émigré Nicolas Chopin in Warsaw, taught French. Cui’s professional studies in military engineering took place in St. Petersburg, where he was able to further his musical interests.
Cui was to continue his career as a professor of military fortification, while devoting much of his time to the deals of Balakirev, the dominant figure among nationalist composers, whom he had met in 1856. He became influential particularly as a critic and as a proponent of Russian ideals in music, regarding the allegedly European tendencies of the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky with some disfavour.
As a composer Cui won Balakirev’s early approval, particularly for his supposed achievement in opera with the early Prisoner in the Caucasus, followed by a version of Heine’s William Ratcliff. Cui was closely associated with Dargomizhsky, and was to complete the opera The Stone Guest after that composer’s death.
In addition to his stage works, Cui wrote songs and piano pieces in some profusion, larger scale choral works and a baker’s dozen of orchestral pieces. Perhaps wisely, he avoided the sustained intricacies of the symphony, but excelled in shorter forms, for which he is chiefly remembered. Undervalued by posterity, Cui acquired a certain mastery of a succinctness, coupled with an ability in orchestration that he did not always show in his early work.
Suite Concertante, Opus 25: Intermezzo scherzando, Canzonetta, Cavatina, Finale – Tarantella
Cui’s Suite Concertante was written in 1884 and later published by Belyayev. The work exists also in a version for violin and piano. The initial Intermezzo scherzando opens with a brief introduction before the entry of the solo violin in Russian mood, the dance theme later shared with the orchestra. The movement relaxes in a trio section of more lyrical feeling, to be replaced by the return of the vigorous rhythm of the opening, turning momentarily to a gentle waltz in its closing section.
The second movement, a Canzonetta, starts with a graceful violin melody, material that frames a central section of contrasting energy. For the third Cui again borrows a title from vocal music. The Cavatina, introduced by the woodwind, allows the violin a romantic melody, a transposition of the contemporary operatic into instrumental terms.
The suite ends with a Tarantella, a Neapolitan dance that acquired instrumental popularity in the nineteenth century, its origin in a supposed perpetuum mobile cure for the effects of the bit of the tarantula spider. Here the wilder aspects of tarantism are avoided, in favour of a more respectable display of virtuosity.
Suite miniature Opus 20: Petite marche, Impromptu à la Schumann, Cantabile, Souvenir douloureux, Berceuse, Scherzo rustique
The Suite Miniature of 1882 consists of a series of six brief sketches, an orchestral version of the kind of music for which Cui had a deserved reputation. The Suite opens with a miniature march, its trio section offering brief relaxation from its sprightly progress.
The second piece in the suite, Impromptu à la Schumann, is a short tribute to the German composer Schumann, with all the happy succinctness of a scene from childhood. It is followed by the full blown romanticism of the Cantabile and a Souvenir Douloureux, a sketch of nostalgia.
The last two parts of the suite, Berceuse and Scherzo rustique, a gentle lullaby, matched by a revivifying Russian dance, are further examples of the deftness with which Cui could at times handle the orchestra, and smaller scale musical forms.
In modo populari (Petite Suite No. 3): Allegro moderato, Moderato, Vivace, Moderato, Allegretto, Vivace ma non troppo
The paradox of Cui’s career in music lies chiefly in the disparity between his theoretical writing, as an eager supporter of Balakirev and the nationalists, and the relative lack of Russian content in much of the music he write, particularly when we compare his work with that of his colleagues Borodin, Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, or the enthusiastic leader of the group Balakirev himself.
The Petite Suite of 1890, described as “In Modo Populari”, allows Cui to demonstrate something of his Russian allegiance. The first of the movements of the suite offers a simple melody, stated first by the oboe, and later taken up by the strings. The French horn introduces a livelier melody, played by clarinet and viola. The theme on which the second movement is based is played first by the strings, and then accompanied by the wind, before its gentle development by the clarinet, and a livelier version of the melody, eventually replaced by the mood of the opening.
There is an energetic third movement, with a middle section of contrasting relaxation, followed by a fourth, introduced by a languid clarinet melody, which re-appears in conclusion, after a brief burst of relative activity, re-establishing the mood of pastoral tranquillity.
There is a pervasive melancholy about the fifth movement, recalling something of the melodic figuration of the second. It leads to a sixth movement, a vigorous Russian dance, followed by a brief memory of the theme with which the suite had opened, a melody of gentle melancholy.
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