Two Quartet Mornings and the Seventh Symphony Concert of the Musical Society · The Italian Opera · A Musical-Bibliographical Curiosity
(Два Квартетных утра и седьмое симфоническое собрание Музыкального общества · Итальянская опера · Музыкально-библиографический курьез)
Article for the journal Russian Register (1873).
In the last decade the cause of music in Russia has made such bold and resolute strides, the level of musical culture in Russian society has risen so much that, however many dark sides we may still come across in our country's musical life, the times which we are living through will nevertheless go down into the annals of Russian art as one of its most glorious pages.
In both our capitals and several provincial towns musical societies have been established which pursue the highest artistic aims and acquaint the public with the greatest works of European art. The branches in Saint Petersburg and Moscow have founded conservatories which give the musically gifted a chance to study, and which at the same time, through these very pupils, ensure that sound musical principles spread among the masses. Composers, encouraged by the opportunity to see their works performed alongside the finest creations of Western European symphonists, have thereby received a beneficial stimulus for their activity. Music critics have appeared who are abreast with the very latest developments. The wider public, whose interest has been awakened by this quickening of Russian musical life, is beginning to actively sympathise with, and support, this movement—in short, everything is in full swing, and, from a state of vegetating slumber, music in Russia is at last becoming a sphere of intense public interest and activity.
However, from what I have just said it does not by any means follow that in the field of music we have outstripped our western neighbours or even drawn level with them. We are still but trying to catch up with western art, and this will be so for a long time yet! Nevertheless, the impulse has been given, and surely no one would claim that in our musical life, which has finally been set going, there are no signs of potential for a brilliant and independent development .
Many disgraceful things still happen on our opera stages, many lamentable facts still testify to the under-development of our musicians and our public, but there are also many encouraging events which push into the background these dark sides of musical life in Russia and which cause us to remember with gratitude those persons to whose energy or gracious encouragement Russian music is indebted for its relative, but undeniable flourishing.
Amongst these persons was the recently deceased Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna. Driven by a disinterested love of music, she actively took part in all the important initiatives of our music life, and to her very last days she lovingly watched over the growing and prospering of those non-profit making organisations of our music life for whose existence and success her endorsement, and very often her material support too, had created the necessary conditions. Today, when our whole fatherland is lamenting the Grand Duchess's death, it befits us musicians above all to remember her with a kind word, for it is she who has contributed so much to the success of our art. It is for this reason that I record this mournful event in my musical chronicle as a surprising and at the same time bitter blow for our music life, and can only speak of the decease of the Grand Duchess as a most sad turning-point which has shaken us all profoundly, and all the more so given that it came so unexpectedly for all of us .
TWO QUARTET MORNINGS
The programme of the second and third chamber music matinées of the Russian Musical Society was very interesting. The following works went down particularly well with the audience at these two wonderful musical gatherings: in the second concert a string quartet by A. Rubinstein, and in the third, which took place last Sunday, Beethoven's string quartet in F major, his last work and therefore the swan-song of a dying genius.
A. Rubinstein composed his string quartet two years ago in Saint Petersburg for the 'Russian String Quartet', an ensemble of four young virtuosi from that city which was set up on his initiative and under his influence.
This explains perhaps why in Rubinstein's delightful quartet there is such a strong Russian melodic element, which runs through the whole work in a most compelling way. The Allegretto movement is particularly successful, with its extremely poignant and original quintuple rhythm and charming instrumentation. In the Finale we hear a broad melody in the Russian style, which is splendidly and richly elaborated on.
Beethoven's string quartet—written during the very last phase of his artistic career, when the deafness which overcame him had made it impossible for him to have any close contact whatsoever with people, and which, for that reason perhaps, marked all his late period works with a mood of unspeakable bitterness and despair—produced a strong impression on the audience. The Andante, full as it is of a sense of irreparable sorrow, and yet beautifully cantabile in its formal compactness and profoundly gripping (all the more so when played with such pathos and passion by Mr Laub) , impressed the listeners especially and was repeated at their request.
At this same chamber music matinée Mme Timanova , whom we were already familiar with from the sixth symphony concert, gave us a wonderful performance in one of the finest works by Schubert, that ever young composer who is always so full of genuine fire and inspiration—namely, his Piano Trio in B♭ major. This time in the playing of our attractive young pianist we could even sense that enthusiasm and verve which, in my preceding review, I criticised her for not showing enough of. Either I must be very mistaken, or a most enviable future awaits Mme Timanova.
SEVENTH SYMPHONY CONCERT OF THE MUSICAL SOCIETY
On the day before  the second of these two chamber music matinées there also took place the seventh symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society (which had been postponed because of the death of Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna). Apart from the Coriolanus Overture and a new symphony by Mr Tchaikovsky, which was received favourably by the audience, the main attraction of this concert was the Moscow début of two soloists: the cellist Mr Vorobyev and the singer Mme Nevedomskaya-du Nord.
Mr Vorobyev successfully graduated from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory two years ago, where he studied under the renowned virtuoso K. Yu. Davydov, and has already appeared several times on the concert platforms of that city, so that the public there has had a chance to appreciate the splendid technical accomplishments of this young cellist. Now Mr Vorobyev can take pride in the fact that Moscow too—a city which is most demanding and strict where virtuosity is concerned—has, with the very hearty welcome it accorded to him, confirmed the favourable opinion of the Saint Petersburg public.
Both of the works chosen by Mr Vorobyev are among the most difficult in the extremely limited, nay, scanty repertoire of works for the cello. Moreover, Schumann's Cello Concerto, despite a number of splendid details, suffers from a lack of virtuoso chic, if I may put it that way, that is, from a lack of those favourable conditions for the performer whose presence or absence determines, in the case of all works played by virtuosi, whether these are profitable or thankless pieces. This concerto can only be played successfully by artists with a firmly established reputation, since the work's greyish and pale hue, its fragmentary structure whereby the various sections are not seamlessly tied together, and the ensuing impression of colourlessness and monotony can easily be ascribed by the unknowing public to a lack of technical skill on the part of the soloist.
That is why Mr Vorobyev took a very brave step in deciding to appear before a new audience with a work of this kind which does not have any outward beauty as such that might predispose listeners straightaway in favour of the virtuoso. But this very courage is eloquent proof of Mr Vorobyev's love for music as such, quite independently of its convenience for the performer, since from the purely musical point of view, Schumann's concerto, in spite of all its faults, is without doubt the best of all existing works for the cello.
Mr Vorobyev played it well enough, but without great mastery. One cannot but acknowledge that the difficulties of Schumann's work are still beyond his powers, and, when remembering how this very same piece was played here on several occasions by the intelligent and talented Herr Cossmann —when gauging the qualities of a virtuoso it is impossible to get by without comparisons—it was impossible not to come to the conclusion that, however much this selfless youthful courage on the part of Mr Vorobyev, who chose a work that offers no guarantee of quick success, deserves our praise, it would have been even better if he had shown a sensible modesty and moderation in assessing his own strengths.
The second piece chosen by Mr Vorobyev was the direct antipode of Schumann's concerto: a Fantaisie caractéristique by the late Servais —God knows why it is called that, for it does not contain the least semblance of music. All it has are cello sounds of various kinds, which are meant to captivate the audience in favour of the virtuoso who manages to pluck them forth faultlessly, easily, and quickly. On second thoughts, perhaps this curious musical fantasia is 'characteristic' for the very reason that it doesn't contain any music or fantasy whatsoever!
Be that as it may, the fact is that this young artist played clearly and accurately everything that was instructed by the composer, and for this he was rewarded with loud applause from the audience. All in all, I think that I am not offending against the truth in any way if I call Mr Vorobyev a very good technician, with an agreeable tone and a splendid instrument. However, I did not find in him yet that maturity of a master virtuoso or musicality which he will surely acquire in time if he continues to work on perfecting his undeniable abilities.
Another successful début was that of Mme Nevedomskaya-du Nord, whom I have already mentioned in one of my earlier reviews. To the utter delight of all experienced listeners, she sang Beethoven's difficult aria "Ah! perfido" with an excellently trained, still remarkably fresh voice and with great expressiveness. Instead of straining herself to cause an impression with the loud notes, her singing was clear, simple, and elegant. Two little vocal gems—a Persian Song by Rubinstein and Glinka's immensely enchanting Cradle Song—were also performed by her in a manner worthy of a true artist, again with that same refined sense for measure and gracefulness which testify to her fully-fledged talent.
THE ITALIAN OPERA.
After the loud ovations awakened at first by the delightful Adelina, and then by the languorously enchanting Christina, a period of deathly boredom has set in at the Italian Opera—intensified further by the departure of M. Naudin, the company's only male singer who was a true artist. True, instead of Mmes Patti and Nilsson we now have the somewhat withered, but still attractive Mme Volpini, and following Naudin's departure we can now see the excessively stout and overweight Signor Masini  strutting about the stage like a lifeless automaton and producing high chest tones.
However, these two artists, who currently have the public's sympathy, cannot bring back those pleasant and sometimes highly artistic impressions which the latter received from the three aforementioned vocal celebrities. For this reason, it was with considerable interest that I went to the benefit performance for the stage-director Savitsky, which featured both Russian singers, who performed Act I of A Life for the Tsar, and Italian ones, who sang excerpts from Gillaume Tell, and even N. Rubinstein, whom it does seems very strange to see and hear perform in the same place where Messrs Bolis and Costa sing, where the orchestra is conducted by Messrs Orsini or Kohlbrandt—in short, where that highly anti-musical and sometimes unimaginably disgraceful musico-comical spectacle takes place which we call the Italian Opera.
It is admittedly true that now and then truly remarkable artists sing on this very stage (as they are obliged to do by contract), and that seeing oneself next to them on the bill-boards and on the stage itself is a great honour, but the fact is that the sum total of what is achieved in our opera-house is so far removed from true artistic goals that it really does feel strange to come across our capitals most prominent and significant representative of serious music-making amongst all these curious parodies on art.
Guillaume Tell is regarded as Rossini's finest opera, but that is only true to a certain extent. In this opera the 'Swan of Pesaro' really did change his former manner of writing as the inspiration came to him and forced himself to adopt that of a more thoughtful and serious composer, which did not at all tally with his superficial, cold, but extraordinarily gifted nature. The style is cleaner here, the forms more logical, the recitatives more sensible, the melodies broader, the harmonic technique more ambitious, but, on the other hand, in Tell we do already sense an artist who is unsure of himself, who has lost his way, as it were, and now finds himself in the situation of the bird in Krylov's fable  which has distanced itself from the crows but still doesn't make it into the ranks of the peacocks.
The true artist Rossini—whose name resounded throughout the whole world with the same forcefulness and speed with which it then sank into the abyss of oblivion, from where it is barely rescued by Il barbiere di Siviglia and two or three other comic operas of his—appears before us in Guillaume Tell dressed in tragic robes which do not at all suit him, instead of the colourful costume of the witty and convivial Figaro. When considered alongside other serious and tragic operas, Guillaume Tell is certainly the work of a composer of genius, but it is poor in spontaneous inspiration and in places also boring (for example, the whole scene with Geßler), whereas Il barbiere di Siviglia will forever remain an unsurpassable paragon of its kind before which both the ponderous German comic operas and even the relatively cold, though poignant works of yet another master of opera buffa, Auber, must inevitably pale.
In no other composer can you find that unfeigned, wholehearted, irresistibly gripping cheerfulness which springs up at you from every page of Il barbiere, that brilliant elegance of melody and rhythm which this opera is so full of. In his serious operas (Tancredi, Otello, Semiramide) Rossini becomes stilted, artificial, even lifeless, and if it were not for the symmetrically beautiful construction of his melodies, which are almost always dancing ones and not at all appropriate to the plot, as well as the outward prettiness which is characteristic of the music of every Italian maestro and which unwittingly must captivate even the most inveterate musical pedant, these operas would long ago have been irrevocably forgotten. Nevertheless, in these operas, despite all their stilted emptiness and cardboard tragic pathos, Rossini is more attractive and appealing than in Tell, where, its great merits notwithstanding, the real, enchantingly beautiful Rossini hides under the mask of a non-Italian, serious, and profound artist.
The Tell overture is full of pretensions to so-called 'Tonmalerei' , but in reality, except for the introduction played by the four cellos and double bass at the start, it is nothing else but empty chatter, which does not 'paint' or convey anything. The opera's most priceless pearl, its most inspired page are the short interlude which follows on immediately from the overture and the first chorus: there is so much beauty and poetry in this music that it could only have come from the pen of such an artist of genius as Rossini, by virtue of his richness and facility of invention, clearly was. On the whole, the first act is undoubtedly the best one of the opera, for the strain undergone by our artist becomes greater and even more artificial with each act until the opera ends amidst the immense, impenetrable boredom of Act IV. Amongst the finest numbers in the opera I should also like to mention Mathilde's charming aria, the trio in Act III, the short chorus in the scene where the conspiracy is sealed—a scene which is overall too long and boring—as well as the delightful dancing music in the scene with Geßler, which certainly enlivens this scene somewhat. The opera's instrumentation is splendid, although in some places, say, the finale of Act I, it can be rather crude and clumsy. From the dramatic point of view, the libretto of Tell is one of the most boring operatic scenarios around, even though it has been borrowed from Schiller's tragedy.
One cannot but be grateful to the stage-director Savitsky for the fact that at his benefit we were for once in the current season able to hear a good opera being performed well. Under the conditions which have become the norm in our city's opera-house the obligations of a stage-director are extremely difficult, and we have no reason to blame Mr Savitsky for the poor staging of our operas. If one takes into account that almost every week new operas are staged in our theatre, or old ones revived, that there is no continuous and fixed repertoire, can one really ask of the stage-director that the productions should turn out smoothly and be inspired too?!
As things are, it is amazing enough that Mr Savitsky is able to get our exhausted chorus to arrange itself tolerably well on the stage and make its entries and exits at the right times. Neither is it at all amazing that for his benefit performance Mr Savitsky should have made a particularly big effort and even reinforced the chorus with extra singers, as this is so essential for Tell, where the chorus can almost be said to play a leading role. Mr Savitsky probably wanted to prove by this that if those at the top of our theatre management possessed greater energy and were to show more love for their profession, then all our opera productions could turn out if not absolutely perfect, then at least acceptably well.
As I said earlier, this particular production went well and smoothly, with a strong ensemble spirit. Of the principal characters there were very good performances from Mme Volpini, an attractive and elegant singer, and Signor Cotogni , whose splendid voice and imposing physical appearance were perfectly suited to the role of Guillaume. Signor Masini was very poor in the part of the young Melchtal. I cannot understand how this untalented singer commands such fervent admiration from the public! His voice, though high and loud, gives the impression of having been damped with a sordino and makes one wish, as it were, that the singer might slip away backstage and clear his throat properly. Moreover, Signor Masini acts on the stage like a little child: he carries his head in such a way as if he were constantly afraid that some invisible, heavily loaded hawker's tray might any minute now crash down on the stage! He waves his arms about monotonously and inopportunely, he sings without passion and doesn't know how to make economical use of his fine natural qualities—in short, all the time he demonstrates his lack of scenic and musical competence.
There are some roles—in I Puritani, for example—in which it is quite pleasant to hear Signor Masini because of his truly beautiful high notes, but he really shouldn't have embarked on such a difficult role as that of Arnold Melchtal.
Amongst the other performers, I should like to single out Mme Engalycheva , who sang the small part of Jemmy very well; Mme Annenskaya , who with her great musicality contributed a lot to the overall success of the production; and M. Vidal, a singer who is still little appreciated here, but who is certainly not run-of-the-mill. As I have mentioned Mme Engalycheva, I cannot refrain myself from wholeheartedly exhorting her to pay serious attention to her musical development. For what a marvellous voice she has, what remarkable physical attributes for the stage, and yet how little has come of it all so far!
Act I from A Life for the Tsar was staged on the hoof, so to speak—this is what we have come to in Moscow!—and was a complete failure: all the three soloists were in poor voice. Mr Rubinstein, on the other hand, scored a huge success with his performance of Liszt's Totentanz, as I already mentioned above.
At the beginning of this article I said that, thanks to the efforts and selfless devotion to their profession of several individuals who are as skilful as they are enterprising, in recent years the level of musical understanding in our two capitals has been raised considerably, and now you won't everywhere come across such things which in the past were apt to cause aesthetically minded people to despair.
Unfortunately, though, even nowadays we are still sometimes faced with such facts which testify to our comparative backwardness in the artistic sphere—things which would be quite unconceivable in a country where culture in general and aesthetic standards in particular are at a high level of development. Our under-development and musical immaturity reveal themselves in two ways. Either, like children who aspire to be on the same footing as adults and wish to appear serious and progressive, we pronounce, in our childish ardour, such absurdities as could only come from the mouth of a half-educated grammar-school boy. Or our complacent ignorance induces us to judge and lay down the law on matters which we are scarcely, if at all, informed about, whereby to give ourselves more importance, all kinds of authorities are rejected, narrow-minded patriotic tendencies are invoked, and everything that rises above our level of ignorance is branded as 'Westernism', 'aping of the West', and other such shameful epithets .
Saint Petersburg excels in the first kind of this childishness. The local newspaper there, Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti [Saint Petersburg Register], has engaged for its feuilleton a reviewer  who acts as the mouthpiece of a well-known circle of 'progressive' Russian musicians , who, on the basis of their 'progressiveness', reject everything apart from themselves, and with naïve self-confidence hurl down Bach, Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and even Wagner from their lofty pedestal. On the pages of this newspaper we are presented with judgements on music which, by virtue of their sharpness and childishly bold peremptoriness, remind us of those fortunately long bygone days, when in the newspaper Russkoye Slovo [The Russian Word] of blessed memory it was demonstrated to us, in deadly earnest, that the greatness of Beethoven, Mozart, and Raphael was in no way greater than that of the chef Dussot, the shoemaker Pehl, and other such celebrities .
Moscow, on the other hand, which likes to stay true to the past in everything, is abundant in examples of the second kind of childishness. When Mr Slavyansky , a quite mediocre singer, appeared two years ago in our city with his under-rehearsed choir and performed, alongside American waltzes, various pseudo-folkloric Russian songs, the newspaper Sovremennye Izvestiya [Contemporary News] published almost every day thundering articles against musical institutions which were supposedly a threat to national art, and in these articles our clever and enterprising tenor, who thanks to his Russian costume had been able to throw dust into the eyes of the Muscovite patriots, was hailed as a great man who had come to liberate perishing Russian art from the oppression of anti-patriotic forces. Everything that appeared back then in the aforementioned newspaper was incredibly naïve and ridiculous, but at least these articles were grammatically correct.
A MUSICAL-BIBLIOGRAPHICAL CURIOSITY
Now, though, I must inform my readers about the publication of a little book which wouldn't normally warrant mention—so unnoticed has its appearance and existence gone by in the press—but since the banality of its content and the illiteracy of its author surpass by far everything that I have ever read about music, I think it might amuse the public to know more about it.
This little book bears the following grandiloquent title: An Outline of the History of Opera and Biographies of Composers Whose Works Are Performed on the Moscow Stage. Its author has concealed himself under the modest pseudonym of Ivan Melodin .
By way of giving some striking examples of the high level of musical appreciation and understanding displayed by the author of An Outline of the History of Opera and Biographies (outline of biographies?!), suffice it to mention that, according to Mr Melodin, Rossini's overture to Semiramide is to this day considered one of the best overtures there are, or that in Verdi's Trovatore the characters are depicted with the hand of a true master. When referring to the most distinguished representatives of contemporary vocal art, Mr Melodin asserts that Messrs Nicolini  and Stagno  are considered to be the "finest singers" of our times!!!
Furthermore, Ivan Melodin also informs us that Bellini was "a soft-skinned blond Sicilian"; that Verdi, "who has written many implacable operas", owns "a splendid house with a park where he can take walks with Madame Verdi"; that in Les Huguenots "the Middle Ages" (I can only marvel at Mr Melodin's knowledge of history!) "acquire historical colour" because in this work "Protestant austerity is skilfully juxtaposed with the carefree humour of the young Signori", and so on and so forth.
I could continue to amuse my readers for quite a while with further curious snippets from Mr Melodin's Outline, but restrictions of word-length compel me to break off this entertaining pastime, and besides these "medyayeval Signori, who with carefree humour perpetrate the horrors of St Bartholomew's Day" are surely sufficient to give a comprehensive impression of Mr Melodin's huge erudition and his profound knowledge of music.
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist
This page was last updated on 13 February 2013