About this Recording
8.573581 - RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Berlin Radio Symphony, G. Schwarz)
English 

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 1 • Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 32

 

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov originally intended a naval career, following the example of his elder brother. He showed some musical ability even as a very small child, but at the age of fourteen entered the Naval Cadet College in St Petersburg in pursuit of a more immediately attractive ambition. The city, in any case, offered musical opportunities. He continued piano lessons, but, more important than this, he was able to enjoy the opera and attend his first concerts.

It was in 1861, the year before he completed his course at the Naval College, that Rimsky-Korsakov met Balakirev, a musician who was to become an important influence on him, as he was on the young army officers Mussorgsky and Cui, who already formed part of his circle, later joined by Borodin. The meeting had a far-reaching effect on Rimsky-Korsakov’s career, although in 1862 he set sail as a midshipman on a cruise that was to keep him away from Russia for the next two and a half years.

On his return in 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov fell again under the influence of Balakirev. On shore there was more time for music and the encouragement he needed for a serious application to music that resulted in compositions in which he showed his early ability as an orchestrator and his deftness in the use of Russian themes, a gift that Balakirev did much to encourage as part of his campaign to create a truly Russian form of music. Nevertheless, as Rimsky-Korsakov himself soon realised, Balakirev lacked the necessary technique of a composer, justifying Anton Rubinstein’s taunts of amateurism. In spite of his own perceived deficiencies in this respect, in 1871 he took a position as professor of instrumentation and composition at St Petersburg Conservatory and the following year resigned his commission in the navy, to become a civilian Inspector of Naval Bands, a position created for him through personal and family influence.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s subsequent career was a distinguished one. Understanding the need for a sure command of compositional techniques, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, he set to work to make good these defects in his own musical formation with remarkable success. This led him, as the only real professional of the nationalist group dominated by Balakirev, to undertake the completion and, often, the orchestration of works left unfinished by other composers of the new Russian school.

As early as 1869 Dargomizhsky had left him the task of completing the opera The Stone Guest. Twenty years later he was to perform similar tasks for the music of Mussorgsky and for Borodin, both of whom had left much undone at the time of their deaths. Relations with Balakirev were not always easy and Rimsky-Korsakov, who had become increasingly intolerant of the former’s obligatory and dogmatic interference in the work of others, was to become associated with Belyayev and his schemes for the publication of new Russian music, a connection that Balakirev could only see as disloyalty. There were other influences on his composition, particularly with his first hearing of Wagner’s Ring in 1889 and consequent renewed attention to opera, after a brief period of depression and silence, the result of illness and death in his family.

Rimsky-Korsakov was involved in the disturbances of 1905, when he sided with the Conservatory students, joining with some colleagues in a public demand for political reform, an action that brought his dismissal from the institution, to which he was able to return when his pupil and friend Glazunov became director the following year. He died in 1908.

César Cui took the opportunity of the appearance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony, to declare it the first Russian symphony, a deliberate snub to Rubinstein, whose earlier symphonies had won a very much wider international audience by this time. Rimsky-Korsakov had undertaken the composition of a symphony while at the Cadet School and was encouraged to continue by Balakirev, whom he first met in November 1861. The following winter and spring he tackled the Scherzo and Finale. The slow movement was eventually written on board ship off Gravesend, where his naval duties had taken him. For this movement he made use of a folk-song Pro Tatarski Polon (On the Tatar Captivity), a theme provided by Balakirev. The Trio of the Scherzo movement was added in the autumn of 1865 and the symphony, then in its original key of E flat minor, was performed under Balakirev at one of the concerts of the Free Music School in St Petersburg, an institution established largely in opposition to Rubinstein’s professional, and therefore foreign, Conservatory. Twenty years later, in the spring of 1884, Rimsky-Korsakov revised and re-orchestrated the work, transposing it into the more manageable key of E minor. The symphony opens with a slow introduction, with the main theme of the following Allegro making partial use of a Russian theme. The slow movement proclaims its folksong origin, a contrast with the following Scherzo. Although subjected to later revision and rewriting, it is clear that the seventeen-year-old midshipman boasted a remarkable natural talent, justifying the early enthusiasm of Balakirev, if not the jibes against Rubinstein of the critic Cui.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Second Symphony, completed in 1868, he later preferred to consider a symphonic suite, based, as it is, on the story of Antar by the pseudonymous Baron Brambeus. He started his Symphony No. 3 in C major in 1873, making use of a Scherzo written in 1863 and a Trio composed during his honeymoon in Italy in 1872. In his reminiscences he recalled the difficulty he found in the composition of the first and third movements, which he modestly attributed to a lack of technique, as he strove to introduce more and more counterpoint into the texture of the work. He finished the symphony on 18th February 1874, but performance in St Petersburg was greeted without any great interest. The newly acquired technical competence was praised with unusual warmth by César Cui, but seemed to others too academic, a criticism echoed by Tchaikovsky after a Moscow performance under Nikolay Rubinstein. He revised the symphony completely in 1886, two years after his first revision of the First Symphony.

The symphony starts with a slow introduction in which the theme of the following Allegro appears. The strong first subject leads to a much gentler second subject and a central development that introduces further drama, before the triumphant recapitulation, melting into the transposed second subject, leading to a final hushed ending. The Scherzo, in its re-orchestrated form, continues to show Rimsky-Korsakov’s command of instrumentation, acquired by study and by his experience with naval bands. It seemed to him that the unusual 5/4 metre of this second movement might have deterred conductors undertaking performance of the whole symphony. It offers music of great rhythmic vitality and energy and masterly orchestral colouring, to which the Trio provides romantic melodic contrast. The French horn introduces the third movement Andante, followed by other wind instruments and then the strings. The movement increases in tension to a dynamic climax, from which the clarinet leads to a further strongly romantic statement of the principal thematic material. The final Allegro con spirito brings about an element of cyclic unity in its re-use of the principal themes of the earlier movements, achieved with a technical assurance that is always evident and in a musical language of thoroughly Russian cast.

Keith Anderson


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