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CD Review

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff

DGG 423604

Orchestral Works

  • Symphony #1 in E minor, Op. 1
  • Symphony #2 (Symphonic Suite), Op. 9 "Antar"
  • Symphony #3 in C Major, Op. 32
  • Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36
  • Capriccio espagñol, Op. 34
Göthenburg Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon 423604-2
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I confess. I'm nuts about Rimsky's music, from the sheer gorgeous of Schéhérazade to the power of The Tsar's Bride. To me, he's a better opera composer than Tchaikovsky, and I simply do not understand why the Met revives Onegin or Pique Dame when it could have May Night or The Snow Maiden.

Rimsky's music breaks conveniently into two groups: before and after 1888, the year of the Russian Easter Overture. He wrote no large-scale instrumental work after that one, except for making suites from his operas. The symphonies occupy an odd place in his output. He revised all of them extensively, even compulsively. At one point, he decided that "Antar" was no symphony and, after the inevitable revisions, renamed it a Symphonic Suite. Consequently, his catalogue contained a first and third symphony, but no second. Furthermore, even in revision, they share the problems of the 19th-century Russian nationalist symphony in general.

Balakirev and Stasov, two of the prime movers of Russian musical nationalism, opposed classical forms as "German," but offered no specific replacement. They did look to Liszt and notions of "organic" form. While this may have served smaller works or those based on text, it gave many composers a devil of a time trying to devise large works like symphonies. Liszt provided the example of the tone poem, and his own are mainly windy, sprawling monsters, though full of interesting ideas. Bruckner came up with something idiosyncratic and, significantly, had few (if any) living heirs. Strauss produced uneasy hybrids, formally speaking, stuffed with astonishing passages and genius themes which carry the listener over erratic "development." Classical procedures provided direction - effective rhetorical and narrative patterns, the sense of a journey with arrival, as opposed to static pictorialism or momentary sensation. Forsaking these procedures meant you had to find something to take their place. The Russian nationalist theorists tried folk song and song in general. Song procedures tend to closure, rather than to expansion. To paraphrase the composer Constant Lambert, about the only thing you can do musically with a folk song is to play it louder - not really true, but it does point up the difficulty of maintaining momentum and variety. The journey is essentially short and you tend to keep passing the same scenery. Variation is one promising technique, but it doesn't itself offer a sense of direction to the music. Borodin in his second symphony probably came as close as any 19th-century Russian composer (other than Tchaikovsky and the Rachmaninoff of the Symphony #1) to pulling off the symphony based on Russian song.

So how does Rimsky do? Because of his later revisions, it's hard to say. He regarded his own first effort as a mess, his second as a non-symphony, and his third as dog work to prove to himself he actually knew something about composition. As Richard Taruskin points out in his dazzling liner notes, if you want to know how Rimsky conceived of symphonies, look to his third. As far as I'm concerned, they're all fabulous music, but not necessarily great ymphonies. I think he was far too hard on himself.

Rimsky claimed that he learned to write a symphony from a textbook. If so, that must have been some book, because he comes very close to hitting a symphonic home run on his first at-bat. But this isn't the nationalist grail. He tries his best at classical procedures. Indeed, he wrote to Cui that the only thing Russian about the symphony was his name on the title page. In this, he mistook his own work. It remains a quintessentially Russian work. Its lack of ease with classical procedures is more than made up for by a greater share of surprising inspiration. Of course the orchestration blazes, and if it didn't in its first version, Rimsky would have revised until it did. However, the melodic and harmonic turns of thought are just as delightfully inspired, even at times powerful. In fact, this seems true to me of Rimsky's three symphonies generally.

The first movement consists of intro, first- and second-subject expositions, some formally weak development, and a coda. First and second subjects essentially come from the same thematic germ in the introduction, rhythmically altered - a classical lesson Rimsky mastered from the get-go. The weak-sister development doesn't really hurt the movement's appeal, but, again, there's no sense of journey or arrival at something really new. On the other hand, Rimsky's variations on basically two thematic cells are something quite fine. The second movement seems to me the weakest of the four. Of interest, however, is the opening theme which bears a more-than-family resemblance to a theme in the finale to Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. This probably means that both composers probably lifted it from somewhere else. Still, the difference in what each makes of the theme is instructive. Rimsky makes it a starting point, but after statement and restatement, can't really figure out what to do next, so he drops it for a rather ordinary theme more "amenable" to development. Tchaikovsky more cannily makes it a point of arrival and thus forgoes the need to develop it at all. The third movement, probably the earliest written, succeeds the best - a wonderfbit of fantasy. The finale should bring even arthritics to their feet and reminds me somewhat of Schumann's Rhenish - the same bounding vigor.

Antar deserves the title of symphony as much as, say, Tchaikovsky's Manfred. The work exists in no less than four editions, of which the third, recorded here, is to be preferred. Symphonic suite or symphony or tone poem, it's again marvelous music. Taruskin notes how Rimsky considerably extends Lisztian techniques. Ravel used to make his students buy the score for lessons in fabulous orchestration. Movements are practically monothematic, à la Liszt, with rhythmic and harmonic transformations of a few basic cells. The work also has a "motto" theme, associated with the hero Antar, which changes with the mood of each movement. The work, in four movements, shows a surprising overall structural similarity to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique: a "standard" first, two interludes (including a third-movement march), and a slow finale. Rimsky wrote first, although Tchaikovsky wrote better. The movements correspond to a "story of Antar," "the joy of vengeance," "the joy of power," and "the joy of love." Welcome to Schéhérazade II.

The first movement begins with chords straight out of Liszt, but better orchestrated. Once we get to the "Antar" motto-theme, however, we're solidly back in Russia and with genuine Rimsky. The symphony is the most purely pictorial of the three. Rimsky lamented its lack of development, and its musical progress is similar to something like Liszt's Saint Fran=E7ois de Paule marchant sur les flots, where themes are differently colored but not developed. The second movement brings in riffs from Rimsky's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain as well as some Mussorgskian demonic tropes. Mussorgsky came first, but, even so, the music hangs together far tighter than Mussorgsky's. The third and final movements are the most colorfully scored and you begin to hear early Stravinsky, particularly his Symphony #1. The third movement is a bit of a lollipop, but it's great fun. The finale contains some of Rimsky's most gorgeous music, with a love theme that will ravish you.

Formally, Rimsky's third symphony satisfies the most of the three. It sounds like a straight lyric outpouring, but, listening to it intently several times over a few days, I discovered great subtleties, not only within movements but also among them. For example, a lovely, apparently throwaway cadential figure in the first shows up in every other movement, and in the finale blossoms into the main theme. Rimsky combines Lisztian thematic transformation with classical development, and the result is probably the best 19th-century Russian symphony other than Tchaikovsky's cycle and Rachmaninoff's astonishing Symphony #1. Borodin's second (probably the quintessential Russian nationalist symphony) is the only example that even comes close. There are also wonderful surprises, like the hell-for-leather 5/8 scherzo. Rimsky again disparaged his own third as an exercise of compositional chops, but it's more. Here, we actually do experience symphonic argument, with all its benefits - including the chief one of emotional transformation. Tchaikovsky's symphonies (with the exception of the first and sixth) aren't this well put together, even though they remain greater music. For some reason, Tchaikovsky, like Bruckner, despite all kinds of structural miscalculation, remained a genius of symphonic rhetoric. Nevertheless, here Rimsky gives you something more than a wonderful picture. He delivers genuinely symphonic goods.

Järvi and the Göthenburgers do a marvelous job - as good or better than Svetlanov's set. The violins seem a bit thin, but that's my only quibble. The accounts are crisp and colorful and always move forward. Järvi keeps the textures so clear, you can practically hear individual instruments, particularly in the winds. Järvi often makes the less good sound better than it is, and he performs this miracle on the first symphony.

I wish the same results had extended to the accounts of the Russian Easter Festival Overture and the Capriccio espagñol - both pretty slapdash, despite Järvi's rhythmic electricity. The overture begins with the woodwinds sourly out of tune and small intonation problems plague most of the performance. The Capriccio suffers from a too-fast tempo, as if Järvi couldn't wait to get the end. This slurs some of the rhythmic articulation. The slow sections have no poetry: they're slow and they're there. If you come into incredible luck, try Szell's performance with the Cleveland (not currently available). Indeed, that entire disc brims with definitive performances: Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, and Mussorgsky's Dawn on the Moskva River.

Sound matters with Rimsky, especially since he himself assigned great importance to the sound of the orchestra (he considered it part of composition itself, rather than something added on). Since all my experience with Rimsky's music comes from recording, I'm not really sure how a live orchestra would sound. In short, engineers tweaking dials represent the rule here, and DG is no exception. The orchestra generally sounds full and rich, although again the violins come across a bit thin. In general, engineers have emphasized the bass and goosed the echo. Other Gothenburg recordings have convinced me of the greater modesty of the orchestra's natural sound.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz

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