About this Recording
8.553249 - Russian Favourites

Alexander Porfir'yevich Borodin (1833 - 1887)
Overture to Prince Igor
Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

Anatole Liadov (1855 - 1914)
Baba Yaga, Op. 56
The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881)
Gopak from The Fair at Sorochinski
Dance of the Persian Slaves from Khovanshchina
Pictures at an Exhibition

The second half of the nineteenth century brought with it a burgeoning of Russian culture, itself, whatever nationalist critics might have said, a result of that cross-fertilisation of ideas that has its origin in the reforms of Peter the Great. In music nationalism was represented by the Five, described by the polymath Stasov as the Mighty Handful, led by Balakirev, with Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Except for the first, their self-appointed leader, the others were essentially amateur, at least in their musical origins. There was, after all, some justice in the criticism of amateurism levelled at them by Anton Rubinstein, founder of the first professional Russian music conservatory in St Petersburg. Cui held a position as a professor of military fortification; Mussorgsky was at first an army officer and later a civil servant; Rimsky-Korsakov started his career as a naval officer; Borodin was a distinguished analytical chemist.

The illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, Borodin was given the name of one of his father's serfs. Prince Gedianov, anxious to secure the future of his mistress, found a husband for her, an elderly retired army doctor, outlived by Gedianov, who died in 1843. Borodin's mother was left well enough off to allow her son an education, training as a doctor, followed by a successful profession as a chemist. Music was always a strong interest, but in a busy life there was not always the time needed to accomplish the musical ambitions that Borodin entertained, so that at the time of his death in 1887 he had not finished his opera Prince Igor, a work finally shaped by Rimsky-Korsakov and the young Glazunov.

Borodin's musical interests were stimulated by his meeting in 1859 with Mussorgsky, who had resigned his commission in order to devote more of his time to music and still further by a period spent in Germany and other countries in Western Europe, where he had opportunity to enjoy wider musical experience. It was in Heidelberg in 1861 that he met his future wife, a gifted pianist. On his return in 1862 to St Petersburg, where he assumed his expected position at the Academy of Physicians, lecturing in organic chemistry, he met Balakirev, who exercised a strong influence on him and convinced him of his musical vocation and of the form it should take as a fellow-disciple of Glinka.

Overture to Prince Igor was once said to have been written out from memory by Glazunov who had once heard Borodin play it through on the piano. According to his student Dmitry Shostakovich, Glazunov, in his cups, was later to admit that the overture was not written out from memory at all, but simply composed for Borodin, whose application to the task in hand had often been slight.

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.

Liadov belongs to the same generation of Russian composers as Ippolitov Ivanov. He was born in St Petersburg in 1855 and studied there at the Conservatory. He had the distinction of being dismissed from Rimsky-Korsakov's Conservatory class for poor attendance, but was later among those protesting at his teacher's own dismissal after the disturbances of 1905. The present release includes a typical arrangement of a group of folksongs and the three orchestral pictures of Russian legend, Baba Yaga, Kikimora and The Enchanted Lake. Baba-Yaga is Russian fairy-tale figure of terror. An ugly hag, she rides through the air in a mortar, impelled onwards by a pestle. Her favourite diet is children, usually cooked, and she serves as the guardian of the waters of life Kikimora is a domestic spirit, a help to industrious housewives and the bane of the lazy, to be pacified by a concoction made from ferns gathered in the forest. Russian lake, too had their dangers, with lurking Vodyanoi, spirits eager to drag humans down to their death in the waters, although the spirits of drowned maidens might assume a more seductive form.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in 1839, the son of a land-owner. As a young officer he had musical ambitions, and without any training in composition tried his hand at an opera, as well as lesser composition, for the entertainment of his friends. It was a meeting with Cui and with the composer Dargomizhsky that led him to a more influential association with Balakfrev and Stasov.

After leaving the army, Mussorgsky held various positions in the civil service. At his death in 1881, the result of epilepsy induced by alcoholism, he left a great deal unfinished, including the opera Khovanshchina, later completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who took it upon himself to serve as musical executor to both Mussorgsky and Borodin. His great Russian opera Boris Godunav was to be revised by Rimsky-Koroakov, who applied his technical abilities to smoothing out apparent crudities in this and other work.

The Gopak is taken from an unfinished comic opera, based on Gogol Sorochintsy Fair, a work later completed by Liadov with the collaboration of others. The Dance of the Persian Slaves is from the opera Khovanshshina, a work that Rimsky-Korsakov completed after the composers death.

Pictures at an Exhibition, a set of piano pieces written m 1874, is intensely original m its use of texture, and has lent itself well enough to re-arrangement for all the colour of a full orchestra, as here m the most famous orchestration of the work by Maurice Ravel. The work commemorates an exhibition of the work of the artist Victor Hartmann, who had died a year before, the exhibits linked by a Promenade, with which the work opens. The first picture is a design for nutcrackers m the shape of a gnome, and the second of an old castle, before the gates of which a troubadour sings. The visitor moves on to a picture of the Tuilleries Gardens, where children quarrel and play and nursemaids gossip, and this is followed by a picture of a Polish peasant ox-cart, its heavy wooden wheels slowly turning.

The Promenade leads now to a costume sketch for children, chickens in their shells, with arms and legs protruding, and to a picture of two Jews, one rich and one poor, a present from Hartmann to the composer, who invented his own names for the two represented. In the market at Limoges old women gossip, discussing the fate of an escaped cow and more trivial nonsense, as Mussorgsky suggested.

The Catacombs, subtitled Sepulchrum Romanum, are lit by a flickering lamp. The skulls stacked on each side begin to glow, lit from within, as the music sets out to suggest the eerie scene, with the dead, in the language of the dead. The macabre continues in the clock in the form of a hut on fowl's legs, the hut of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who crunches the bones of her victims and flies through the night on a pestle.

The triumphant conclusion shows a design for the Great Gate at Kiev, a monument to commemorate the escape of Tsar Alexander II from the hands of assassins in 1866. The music contrasts the solemnity of a liturgical procession with the massive domes and columns of the projected gateway.

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