About this Recording
8.572788 - RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Capriccio espagnol / Overtures (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Capriccio espagnol • Overtures • Dubinushka


Russian cultural nationalism in the nineteenth century had its musical reflection first in the work of Glinka and then in that of a group of five composers, Vladimir Stasov’s Mighty Handful, dominated by Balakirev. The group included César Cui, a professor of military fortification, the young guards officer Mussorgsky, Borodin, a professor of chemistry, and a young naval officer, Rimsky-Korsakov. Born in 1844, this last had followed his childhood ambition and family tradition by entering the naval college in 1856. He had shown an early interest and ability in music, and these he was able to further during his naval career, which lasted until his resignation from the service in 1872. Thereafter he spent a dozen years as Inspector of Naval Bands, a civilian position specially created for him, through the influence of his family, and only abolished in 1884. This led him to develop a particular interest in instrumentation, an aspect of music that had fascinated him since his first experience of opera, Flotow’s Indra, which he had seen in St Petersburg in 1857.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s first meeting with Balakirev, Cui and Mussorgsky had been in 1861. A tour of naval duty abroad, during which he wrote his First Symphony, was followed, on his return, by a performance of the work in 1865 under the direction of Balakirev. Relations with the latter cooled over the years and Rimsky-Korsakov turned to a new circle of musicians assembled by Belyayev, whose musical Friday evenings rivalled the Tuesday evenings over which Balakirev had presided. Belyayev, moreover, was able to offer younger musicians practical support and established a publishing-house for their benefit. Of the original group of five, Mussorgsky died in 1881 and Borodin in 1887, and Rimsky-Korsakov was left to undertake the revision, completion and publication of much that they had left unfinished. His later years were not without their troubles. In the 1890s he suffered from bouts of depression and there was a breach with the Imperial Theatres when approval was not given to various new operas. In 1905 he was involved in support of the student unrest at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he had taught since 1871 and from which he was now dismissed, to be reinstated under the more liberal policies that followed the disturbances. Political trouble occurred again when his last opera, The Golden Cockerel, was refused approval by the censors, who saw in it an attack on the régime. He died in 1908.

The international reputation of Rimsky-Korsakov rests largely on his colourful orchestral works such as the Capriccio espagnol and Sheherazade. The first of these, intended as an orchestral showpiece and originally planned as a fantasia on Spanish themes for violin and orchestra, reflects the contemporary Russian interest in the relatively exotic. It was written in the summer of 1887, as Rimsky-Korsakov, with Glazunov, turned their attention to the completion of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, left unfinished at the latter’s death in February that year. The Capriccio starts with dawn, Alborada, marked Vivo e strepitoso. The French horns introduce the theme in the second section, Variazioni, followed by the return of the opening Alborada, in even more colourful orchestration. The Scena e canto gitano (Scene and Gypsy Song) introduces a series of cadenzas for horns and trumpets, solo violin, flute, clarinet and harp respectively. A lively Asturian Fandango brings the work to a brilliant conclusion.

May Night was Rimsky-Korsakov’s second opera, completed in 1879. It is based on a story by Gogol and concerns tricks played on a Village Headman by his son Levko, his rival for the favours of Hanna. The Headman, after the intervention of a water-nymph who has sought Levko’s earlier help, finds himself finally obliged to consent to his son’s marriage. The opera makes extensive use of folk-material, and this is reflected in the Overture which makes full use of themes that are later to be heard, including the water-nymph music of the third act, Levko’s song about Hanna, sung by the lake in the same act, something of Levko and Hanna’s duet in the first act and music from the opera’s finale.

Rimsky-Korsakov completed his opera The Tsar’s Bride in 1898. The work was first staged in Moscow the following year by Mamontov’s company. Based on a play by Lev Alexandrovich Mey, the opera is set in the reign of Ivan the Terrible and deals with the attempt of the powerful oprichnik Gryaznoy to win the love of Marfa, already promised by her father to a young nobleman, Ivan Lïkov. Gryaznoy is loved by Lyubasha, who vows revenge on her rival. Marfa, however, is chosen as the Tsar’s bride. Her lover is killed by Gryaznoy, while Marfa goes out of her mind, poisoned by Lyubasha, who is stabbed to death by Gryaznov, now mistaken by Marfa in her delirium for her first betrothed, Vanya. The Overture provides an impressive and apt introduction to the first act, set in Gryaznov’s house.

It was in 1866 that Rimsky-Korsakov, under the influence of Balakirev, had the idea of writing his Overture on Russian Themes. As with all his earlier works, this was later revised, reaching its final form in 1880. The themes he chose to use were Slava (Gloria), and the folk-songs At the gates, the gates and Ivan has a big coat on. Modelled on Balakirev’s Overture on Three Russian Themes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s work starts with a slow introduction followed by an Allegro using the two folk-songs. Slava, familiar both from Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet, Op. 59, No. 2 and from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, heard in the introduction, returns in the coda.

The opera Pskovityanka (The Maid of Pskov) occupied Rimsky-Korsakov intermittently for some 25 years. The first version of his first opera was staged in St Petersburg in 1873 and reflected the lack of technical knowledge shared by his nationalist colleagues, to whom the work was dedicated. After further necessary study, he revised the opera in 1876–7, adding a prologue, a royal hunt and storm with other incidents and some weight of counterpoint. This new version was not performed, but provided the necessary elements for the Overture and Entr’actes, used in 1882 for a performance of the original play by Lev Alexandrovich Mey on which the opera had been based. The work was revised again in 1891–2 and performed in 1896, while the Prologue was revised as a one-act opera. The complete opera was staged in Moscow in 1901. The work presents a dilemma for the heroine Olga, in love with the leader of republican opposition to the Tsar and loving, too, her father, the Tsar. Reputed daughter of Prince Yury Ivanovich Tokmakov, viceroy in Pskov, she is promised in marriage to Matuta, a friend and contemporary of Prince Yury, as she tells Tucha, a bailiff’s son, before overhearing the revelation from her supposed father that she is the daughter of another. The forces of Tsar Ivan the Terrible approach Pskov and Tucha organizes resistance. The Tsar’s attack ends when he finds out that Olga is really his own daughter, but she is killed when Tucha attacks the Tsar’s armies, unaware that hostilities have been ended.

The opera starts with a very Russian Overture, opening with a recurrent fanfare and containing more lyrical elements, related to the narrative.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dubinushka (Little Oak Stick) was written in 1905 and orchestrated and developed the following year. The original song, at times banned by the authorities in Russia, had become associated with the student unrest of the time, in which Rimsky-Korsakov had become involved. It provides a rousing little piece, orchestrated with the composer’s usual skill.

Written in 1886, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, avowedly orchestrated in the style of Glinka, is based on liturgical themes, which led Tsar Alexander III, who had little taste for Russian music of this kind, to forbid any repetition of the piece in his hearing, after he had heard the first performance. The programme of the work is explained by the inclusion in the score of quotations from Psalm LXVIII and from St Mark’s account of the Passion. The composer explained how he saw the Easter ceremonies as related to more primitive times in Russia. There is a slow introduction, using the theme of Let God arise!, alternating with the theme An angel wept. The following Allegro is filled with the joy of Easter, the celebration of a holiday.

Keith Anderson

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