Symphony No.2 in F# minor Opus 16 (2) Alexander Glazunov Download 'Symphony No.2 in F# minor Opus 16 (2)' on iTunes
Some snow-covered recommendations from the Russian section of Katherine's collection.
Nobody did the intensely passionate, brooding Russian thing better than the mighty Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His 1879 opera Eugene Onegin tells the story of a selfish chap who regrets his foolish rejection of true love as well as shooting dead his best friend in a duel. ‘Well you would feel a bit sorry after that, wouldn’t you?’ says Katherine. Act III of the opera opens at a glittering society ball, but all Eugene can feel is remorse and the emptiness of his life.
Tchaikovsky is a good example of how important a wealthy patron can be to the production of great art. When he was in his mid-30s, the composer became acquainted with Madam Nadejda von Meck, a widow whose enthusiasm for his music prompted her to give him an annual allowance of £600. This was a period of rich productivity for Tchaikovsky. He wrote – among many other great works – Eugene Onegin, his Violin Concerto, and Swan Lake. Today, Swan Lake remains a sure-fire hit for ballet companies all over the world. ‘Strange then to think that when it was premiered in 1877, the reception it garnered was lukewarm at best,’ says Katherine. ‘And the dancers gave the composer a hard time, saying his music was simply too difficult to dance to!’
Alexander Borodin was a member of a group of Russian composers who met in St. Petersburg known as The Five – or sometimes ‘The Mighty Handful’. They wanted to produce a specifically Russian kind of music, rather than one that relied on conventional European conservatory training. ‘So if you listen to their works,’ says Katherine, ‘you’ll get musical references to village songs, Cossack dances, religious chants - even the tolling of church bells (which can get a little tiring after a while).’ For Borodin, music was something he pursued alongside having a high-profile career in chemistry. Nevertheless he managed to write symphonies, string quartets, and the epic opera Prince Igor. This beautiful tune from his second String Quartet was later put to use in the Broadway musical, Kismet.
No essential collection of Russian music would be complete without something from Sergei Rachmaninov. It is mostly his piano music that we listen to these days. ‘He was a jaw-droppingly brilliant pianist and that comes through in his own compositions which certainly showed off his own playing to the full,’ says Katherine. In the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, he took a famous tune by the great violin virtuoso and turned it into something altogether dazzling and – particularly in the 18th variation – heart-rendingly beautiful.
Mussorgsky was another member of that group known as the Five. He was a great innovator and a champion of music that had a distinctively Russian sound. Many of his works were inspired by history, folklore, and other nationalist themes. Perhaps his most imaginative and certainly most frequently performed work is a cycle of pieces describing paintings in sound called Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘Mussorgsky originally wrote them for the piano,’ says Katherine, ‘but we know them best these days because of the amazing orchestral arrangement by the French composer Maurice Ravel.’
Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the great composers to come out of Russia’s troubled 20th century. Shostakovich had a complex and difficult relationship with the Soviet regime, and developed his own, very unique hybrid style which at times seems to glorify the communist state and Russian history, and at others appears to satirize or poke fun at it. Between 1929 and 1970 Shostakovich wrote more than 30 film soundtracks, and the score for the The Gadfly in 1955 remains a big hit thanks to its use in the 1980s television series Reilly, Ace of Spies, pictured, starring Sam Neill.
This fabulous Shostakovich piece comes from a Soviet propaganda film called 'The Unforgettable Year 1919'. The film portrayed Stalin as a hero and a champion of all that was good and best. One critic described Shostakovich’s score as ‘simple, shallow and altogether trivial.’ But he didn’t know what he was talking about - because with Shostakovich there’s always something else going on beneath the surface.
Shostakovich’s contemporary Prokofiev gave us some of the most original music composed in the 20th century. He wrote his ballet Romeo and Juliet for the Kirov Ballet, but the huge demands it placed on the dancers meant it wasn’t performed for a number of years. Prokofiev wrote new sections for a 1940 production and it was then that the music really took off. ‘The best bit is The Dance of the Knights, or the Montagues and Capulets,’ says Katherine, ‘which you can now hear in so many other settings – such as on The Apprentice or when the players from Sunderland Athletic run onto the pitch at home games!’
Another revolutionary Russian changed the face of music in the 20th century. 'Highly skilled and technically brilliant, Stravinsky’s compositions are rooted in classical forms,' says Katherine ‘but he broke all the conventions of the day and reached back to more primitive times to create something dazzlingly new and daring.’ The Firebird in 1910 cemented Stravinsky’s position as one of the period’s most exciting and dynamic composers, and he was revered by the musical elite of Paris. Today, it remains in rep across the world.