Wednesday 27 June 2012

Rimsky Korsakov’s Invisible City

Perhaps the greatest orchestrator of all time, Nicholai Andreevich Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908) was almost entirely self-taught. The third son of a Civil Governor of the Volinsky Government and nephew of Admiral Nicholai Rimsky Korsakov , it is not surprising that, in 1856, he entered the Corps of Naval Cadets.

Rimsky Korsakov had shown early musical ability and started piano lessons at the age of six. His musical interest continued and he used every available moment of his spare time to listen to and study music. There appears to have been quite a lot of spare time in his new career enabling him, in 1861, to meet Balakirev and Cui who, together with Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky Korsakov himself would go on to become what was termed ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘The Five’, a group representing the new Nationalist Russian School.

Rimsky Korsakov’s autobiography, ‘My Musical Life’, first published, posthumously, in 1923 gives an evocative account of these early years (available from Amazon) including a voyage on the naval clipper ‘Almaz’, first to England, where he visited Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Crystal Palace and Covent Garden for the opera, then to the Baltic before sailing to New York and Rio Janeiro. By this time he had already made a start on his First Symphony.

After his return to Russia, in 1865, Balakirev performed Rimsky Korsakov’s First Symphony at one of his Free School concerts, which was well received. Composition continued with his first opera ‘The Maid of Pskov’ being commenced in 1868.

In 1871 Rimsky Korsakov was offered the post of Professor of Practical Composition at the St Petersburg Conservatoire.  The Director of the Conservatoire, Mikhail Pavlovich Azanchevsky (1839 – 1881), knew that Rimsky Korsakov was effectively an amateur composer but little did he realise to what extent. In Rimsky Korsakov’s own words ‘It was not merely that I couldn’t at that time have harmonised a chorale properly, had never written a single contrapuntal exercise in my life, and had only the haziest understanding of strict fugue; but I didn’t even know the names of the augmented and diminished intervals or of the chords…in my compositions I strove after correct part-writing and achieved it by instinct and by ear.’

Despite these major concerns, Rimsky Korsakov accepted the Professorship and resigned from the Navy after which he was appointed civilian Inspector of Bands.

Rimsky Korsakov undertook to teach himself harmony and counterpoint using mainly Tchaikovsky’s text book on Harmony and treatises by Cherubini and Bellermann for counterpoint. Nevertheless he often found that he was only one step ahead of his students.

Rimsky Korsakov went on to write twelve operas that form a major part of the Russian operatic tradition. It’s a pity that his operas are not so well known as those of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Tchaikovsky. It’s true that they don’t have the same dramatic power as operas such as Boris Godunov or Prince Igor but they more than make up for that with their own special magic. Nowhere is this more so than with Rimsky Korsakov’s penultimate opera ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’.

Written between 1903 and 1906, Rimsky Korsakov and his librettist, Vladimir Belsky, had been attracted to the Kitezh legend since 1898. These were difficult years for the composer with the 1905 uprising and student protests. After a performance of Rimsky’s ‘Kashchey the Immortal’ conducted by Glazunov, there was a student demonstration verging on a revolutionary meeting where in Rimsky Korsakov’s own words ‘They called me on to the platform and began to read me addresses from different societies and associations and to make inflammatory speeches.’

Eventually the police intervened and the theatre was emptied. The police banned the next concert and the performance of any of Rimsky Korsakov’s works. The Conservatoire had already been closed due to student protests. Rimsky Korsakov was firmly on the side of the students but, badly ruffled, he resumed his ‘Record of my Musical Life’ after a twelve year break. Rimsky Korsakov continued to teach his students at his home until the Conservatoire reopened under the Directorship of Glazunov who reappointed him.

Act 1 of ‘The Invisible City of Kitezh’ was played over by Rimsky Korsakov’s future son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg at the composer’s home in November 1906. Regular Wednesday evening musical gatherings at Rimsky Korsakov’s home, 28, Zagorodny Prospect, St Petersburg began in September 1906. Such notables as Stravinsky, Taneiev, Lyadov, Glazunov, Scriabin and Cherepnin were frequent visitors.

I had the wonderful experience of visiting Rimsky Korsakov’s old house at 28, Zagorodny Prospect, now a museum, during a visit to St Petersburg in 2002. It was then a very informal museum where it was even possible to play Rimsky Korsakov’s piano.

Rimsky Korsakov desk
N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov Museum

© The Classical Reviewer

‘The Invisible City of Kitezh’ was first staged at the Maryinsky Theatre on 20th February 1907 conducted by Felix Blumenfeld and was a triumph.

Naxos Records have recently issued a live recording of ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ with the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari conducted by Alexander Vedernikov.

8.660288-90 3CD

Naxos has had some considerable successes in the past with their opera recordings. I’m thinking in particular of their Rossini ‘Barber of Seville’ (8.660027-29) which was a Gramophone magazine Editor’s Choice, as was Wagner’s ‘ The Flying Dutchman’ (8.660025-26) and Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (8.660030-31).

This new issue has the advantage of the conductor Alexander Vedernikov who was Music Director at the Bolshoi from 2001 to 2009. He has also brought a number of the Bolshoi soloists to this project. For those that haven’t heard of Cagliari, it is the capital of the island of Sardinia. The opera house in Cagliari, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, has, in the past, attracted such artists as Tullio Serafin and Guido Cantelli as well as having associations with composers such as Respighi, Pizzetti and Wolf-Ferrari.

‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ is the story of the advancing Mongol army’s entry to Great Kitezh and the city’s subsequent miraculous survival as well as the Prince Vsevolod’s love of the forest dweller Fevroniya.

Russian soprano Tatiana Monogarova as Fevroniya is in wonderful voice in the Act 1 love duet with Vitaly Panfilov as Prince Vsevolod. This beautiful theme returns a number of times later in the opera.

The market place scene in Act 2 features a fine character tenor, Stefano Consolini as the bear tamer with Riccardo Ferrari making a creditable ‘Russian’ sounding bass as the blade singer. The female chorus is impressive in ‘Over the bridges of guilder-tree’.

There are many strengths in Act 3 of this production with Mikhail Kazakov (bass) as Prince Yuri in the aria ‘Oh glory, vain wealth’ singing to great effect. Act 4 brings some of the most captivating orchestration of the whole opera as well as some fine singing from the chorus in the chorus ‘Radiant Kingdom’ before the return of the love duet theme beautifully sung by Tatiana Monogarova.

Overall this is a fine performance and although the live recorded sound does not give as clear a detail of the orchestra as a studio recording might, it is well balanced against the chorus and soloists. There is, of course, with a live stage performance some stage noise and applause at the end of each Act.

This production is also available on DVD Naxos 2.110277-78. An extract can be seen on YouTube

I would recommend this excellent value set to all lovers of Russian opera and, indeed, Russian music in general.

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