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PROGRAM NOTES: Russian Masters

by Eric Bromberger

Selections from Six Songs, Opus 38

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF
Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills

The summer of 1916 was not a particularly good time for Rachmaninoff. The war was going badly for Russia, and those tensions were compounded by the increasing strength of the communists, whose triumph the following year would drive Rachmaninoff from his homeland forever. During the concert season the composer had played a number of programs to benefit the wounded and other victims of the war, and that summer he retreated to his family estate at Ivanovka and wrote a set of six songs. These songs represented some entirely new directions for Rachmaninoff, and–though he lived nearly thirty more years–they would be his last songs. He wrote them for the young soprano Nina Koshetz, and he was the pianist when she sang their première in Moscow on October 24, 1916.

The Six Songs represent new directions for Rachmaninoff in terms of both texts and music. In these songs he turned away from poets of the past and chose contemporary writers: these poems are by six Russian symbolist poets active at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. To match this new–and sometimes strange–sort of poetry, Rachmaninoff changed his musical style. Gone are the Big Tune and the extroverted gestures of his early music, replaced by a leaner style that puts less emphasis on melody and more on atmosphere; the blurred harmonies and subtler style have led some to describe these six songs as “impressionistic.” Yet the poems themselves are neither subdued nor vague. Two themes run through them–love and nature–and their atmosphere is radiant, sometimes even rhapsodic. The imagery in these poems centers around light–glistening, shining, glowing–and the soprano part, often dramatic and extroverted, demands a powerful singer.

This recital offers four of these six songs. Rachmaninoff was enthusiastic about the text of the first poem, In my garden at night by the Armenian poet Avetik Isaakian, saying: “If everyone wrote nature poems as he does, the musician would only have to touch the text, and a song would be finished.” The composer himself was particularly fond of his settings of Daisies, which he later arranged for solo piano, and of The rat-catcher (also known as The pied piper), with its spritely energy and refrain. The most famous of the set is probably the fifth song, Dreams (its title is sometimes translated as Sleep). Fyodor Sologub, both novelist and poet, was fascinated by the darker side of life, and perhaps for that reason he fell into official disfavor after the revolution and was persecuted by the Soviets. The hypnotic Dreams offers a surrealistic picture of sleep, borne along by the sound of ringing bells.

Oh, Never Sing to me Again, Opus 4, No. 4

Oh, never sing to me again comes from much earlier in Rachmaninoff’s career: it dates from the summer of 1893, when the composer, then only 20, had just graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. Dedicated to his future wife Natalya Satina, this song sets a text by Pushkin that is sometimes known under the title Oh, cease thy singing, maiden fair. Nostalgic and yearning, it became famous to American audiences through an unusual recording. In 1920, the Irish tenor John McCormack was recording it and–unsure about tempos–asked for advice from violinist Fritz Kreisler, who happened to be in the adjoining studio. Kreisler, a good friend and frequent recital partner of Rachmaninoff, came over with his violin and–as the microphones ran–played while McCormack sang. That haunting recording is available on compact disc.

String Quartet in D Major, Opus 11

PETER ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg

In the summer of 1869, Tchaikovsky–then a 29-year-old professor at the Moscow Conservatory–made an extended visit to his family’s summer estate in Kamenka in the Ukraine. There he spent a relaxed summer with his sister and brother-in-law, and there he came in contact with the folk-music of the region. This would show up in his own music three years later when he incorporated some of these folk-themes in his Second Symphony, known as the “Little Russian” (“Little Russia” was the somewhat imperial Russian nickname for the Ukraine). But another tune from the region showed up more quickly in his own music.

While in Kamenka Tchaikovsky overheard a workman–a carpenter or a baker (accounts vary)–whistling a haunting melody that was sung with the words “Vanya sat on the divan and smoked a pipe of tobacco.” Back in Moscow two years later, Tchaikovsky planned a concert of his own music as a way of supplementing his faculty income. For that occasion he composed his First String Quartet, and as he worked on the quartet Tchaikovsky remembered the tune he had heard whistled in Kamenka. He used it as the principal theme of the quartet’s slow movement, which he marked Andante cantabile, and that little tune would go on to become one of the most popular melodies in history.

The Quartet in D Major is in traditional forms–sonata-form outer movements and ternary-form inner movements–and some have suggested that in this music Tchaikovsky was striving to demonstrate that he could handle classical structures. The opening Moderato e semplice is built largely on two ideas: a chordal opening and a slightly-swung second subject. Tchaikovsky subjects both themes to an energetic development, and the movement drives to a vigorous close.

In the Andante cantabile muted strings play the workman’s haunting tune, which alternates measures of 3/4 and 2/4. This gives way to a graceful (and equally lyric) middle section, announced in the quartet by the first violin over pizzicato accompaniment. The main theme returns, apparently to round matters off, but Tchaikovsky appends a reminiscence of the center section before the music faces into silence.

The D-minor scherzo, marked Allegro non tanto, powers ahead on a firmly-dotted 3/8 meter. In its trio section, the upper voices dance above a murmuring cello bassline; a recall of the opening section leads to the sudden close. The Allegro giusto finale is in sonata form, with a first theme that eventually soars and a more lyric second idea announced by the viola; once again, Tchaikovsky’s development is full of energy. The music draws to an unexpected silence, then races to its close on a coda that is almost orchestral in its excitement.

Tchaikovsky’s concert–presented at the Moscow Conservatory on March 28, 1871–was a great success, and its slow movement was the sensation of the evening: the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who was in the audience, was moved to tears by it. Tchaikovsky would eventually understand that the string quartet was not a medium well-suited to his expressive needs, and he would do his best work in the ballet and the concert hall. The Andante cantabile, however, achieved international fame, particularly in Tchaikovsky’s own arrangement of it for string orchestra. This concert allows listeners the rare opportunity to hear the string quartet that was the original setting for that famous movement.

Piano Quintet in G Minor, Opus 30

SERGEI TANEYEV
Born November 25, 1856, Vladimir, Russia
Died June 15, 1915, Dyudkovo near Zvenigorod, Russia

Sergei Taneyev was Tchaikovsky’s most successful student. He studied composition with Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, gave the Moscow première of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in December 1875 when he was only 19, succeeded Tchaikovsky as professor of composition at the Conservatory, and remained a lifelong friend of the older composer. As a teacher at the Conservatory, Taneyev had a number of distinguished students, but–alarmed by the Conservatory’s elitist standards and moved by the revolutionary sentiments in the air–Taneyev resigned from the faculty in 1905 and formed his own “People’s Conservatory” in Moscow that would offer instruction even to those unable to pay. He died from the pneumonia he contracted at the funeral of one of his best students, Scriabin.

Taneyev occupies a unique position among turn-of-the-century Russian composers in that he rejected all forms of nationalistic music, whether folktunes or dance rhythms, in favor of the classical forms of Western music. Technically he was perhaps the best-equipped of any Russian composer, though some have regretted his insistence on cutting himself off from anything innately Russian in his own music. Among his compositions are four symphonies, nine quartets, three quintets, an opera, and numerous choral works.

Taneyev composed his Piano Quintet in G Minor in the years 1908-10, just after leaving the Moscow Conservatory. This is big music: its four movements stretch out over three-quarters of an hour, and Taneyev generates a huge volume of sound from these five instruments. It is also well-integrated music: it opens with a slow introduction marked mesto (“sad”), and the piano’s opening figure will become the fundamental theme-shape for the entire quintet. This shape evolves into the movement’s main theme when the music leaps ahead at the Allegro patetico. In this case, patetico means not “pathetic” but “expressive” or “intense,” and intense this movement certainly is. The flowing second subject (also built on the opening shape) brings some calm, but it is the gigantic scope of this movement that impresses most. Taneyev’s markings range from triple forte and drammaticamente to frequent admonitions to keep the music cantabile, dolce, espressivo. Despite these interludes of calm, the movement drives with unremitting force through the tense G-minor cadence.

The pleasing Scherzo is much lighter, sparkling along on the piano’s staccato triplets and the strings’ ricochet bowing. There is unusual metric variety here: into a fundamental pulse of 6/8(2/4), Taneyev alters the meter in such ways that the same meter can feel completely different–these subtle shifts of pulse are part of the music’s charm. Another part is its good spirits: Taneyev at one point marks the score con allegrezza: “with mirth.” The theme-shape from the very beginning returns here in the trio and in the coda, which drives to a sudden ending.

The remarkable Largo is built around an ostinato-like theme stamped out by all five players and then repeated in some form throughout the movement. Above this, Taneyev spins out a variety of expressive music, alternating passages for strings alone with extended writing for solo piano. The movement rises to a passionato climax before falling away to the effective ending, where the ostinato theme–so powerful throughout–dissolves quietly at the close. The tumultuous finale is built on material from earlier movements–in fact, when the main theme takes wing, Taneyev marks it pateticamente. This is a dramatic movement, full-throated in its rhetoric, and it drives to an extraordinarily sonorous close.

meridia