The Second and Third Weeks of the Concert Season
(Вторая и третья недели концертного сезона )
Article for the journal Russian Register (1874).
THE SECOND AND THIRD WEEKS OF THE CONCERT SEASON
In the second week of the current concert season there were also a lot of concerts, though not as many as in the first week. Here I shall discuss in detail only the seventh symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, whose programme was just as varied as it was interesting.
At the start of this concert we heard one of Glinka's two Spanish Overtures, namely the second, which is also known under the title of A Summer Night in Madrid. How much heartfelt inspiration and exuberant poetic fantasy there is in this enchanting work by our great artist! The Introduction is extraordinarily original, with its depiction of the transparent twilight as the mild southern night descends on Madrid. Then come the exciting and passionate strains of a dance melody, which at first seems to be wafting over from a distance, and after that, in the central section, there is a rapid succession of episodes in which we can quite literally hear secret, soft whispers being exchanged, and kisses, and embraces, and then we sink again into the silence and darkness of the fragrant, star-lit southern night. And all this accompanied by such mastery of outward design, by such richness of colours amidst the amazing plastic beauty of the overture's form, which takes shape freely and with natural coherence!
I dare say I am not mistaken if I assert that amongst the numerous audiences which attend the concerts of the Russian Musical Society not a single listener could possibly fail to be carried away to the utmost degree of enthusiasm by the dazzling flashes of Glinka's mighty creative genius, which shines forth so brightly in this Spanish Overture. For it was very much a feature of his tremendous musical gift that, alongside a clearly traced, always beautiful melodic line, which readily wins over the listener who is unprepared and still insensitive to the finer beauties of harmony, Glinka appears before us in his works fully armed with a luxuriant harmonic, contrapuntal, and orchestral technique, which easily satisfies the most exacting demands of those who do appreciate the beauty of musical texture and structure.
Alongside this masterpiece, the concert's programme also included Beethoven's Second Symphony. As is well known, this work belongs to the great symphonist's early creative period, when he was still under the overwhelming influence of another giant in the field of instrumental music—namely, his predecessor Mozart. The motifs of hopeless disillusionment, of desperate striving towards a lost ideal , are not yet to be found in this symphony, which is full of carefree merriness and rejoicing. Nevertheless, in some aspects of the instrumentation and in certain harmonic turns, as well as in the relatively complex elaboration of the themes, it is already possible to discern the features of an individuality which was then just starting to manifest itself, but which would subsequently develop and grow into such colossal proportions, that to this day there are still many people who, not without reason, consider all the music that has come after Beethoven to be no more than attempts to extract and process the material created by him. Anyway, both these orchestral works were performed with the usual ensemble spirit and shared enthusiasm which are characteristic of the Russian Musical Society concerts.
The choral work on that evening's programme was Schubert's cantata Mirjams Siegesgesang. The latter is one of the numerous works by this composer of genius which were discovered after his death amongst his unfinished manuscripts or, at any rate, musical scores which had not yet received the final touches and instrumental setting that Schubert intended for them. Mirjams Siegesgesang was evidently conceived for solo and chorus, with orchestral accompaniment , but Schubert died before he could carry out the orchestration himself. This difficult job was undertaken by the famous German composer Lachner , who executed his task with that mastery which long ago earned him wide renown as a musician who was in the vanguard of contemporary compositional technique.
This cantata is full of inspiration, melodic richness, and poetic fantasy. The principal theme stands out for its solemn simplicity and the beautiful outlines of its quintessentially Schubertian voice leading. It appears first in the solo part, then in the chorus, and which, after a long series of delightful and contrasting episodes that interrupt it over and over again, evolves finally into the theme of a beautifully elaborated choral fugue. Schubert succeeded brilliantly in illustrating through music the roaring sea, and the horror of the chosen people when they see the armies of Pharaoh fast approaching is conveyed with a truly staggering force.
The evening's soloist was the violinist Mr Brodsky, whom I have already spoken about with regard to his participation in a literary and musical soirée to raise funds in aid of governesses . Mr Brodsky gave a magnificent account of a concerto by Vieuxtemps, and elicited a storm of enthusiastic applause with his fiery, precise, and highly artistic playing.
Now I shall move on to a survey of the concerts which took place in the third week of the season, and, above all, to the concert given by the most renowned of contemporary pianists, A. G. Rubinstein. This virtuoso of genius has come to us after his triumphant performances in Moscow, where his takings from just two concerts amounted to the incredible sum of 14,000 silver roubles—half of which sum he has given away, partly for the use of the main board of directors of the Russian Musical Society, and partly for charitable assistance to the poor.
As was to be expected, the audience which Mr Rubinstein drew to his concert in Moscow was as numerous as those which attended his performances in Saint Petersburg. He played for us on his own, without an orchestra and without the participation of any other artist; he played a lot and for a long time, and his playing throughout was of such quality as is only within the reach of a virtuoso endowed with both talent of genius and long since fully-fledged, incomparable mastery. The longest work on the programme were his own Variations on an original theme, with which he in fact opened the concert. The theme of these variations is extremely beautiful, albeit so long that it takes sustained attention and a considerable degree of musical culture to be able to keep track of its many rich alterations, which are all dressed up with exuberant fantasy and masterly technique. There are very few individuals in our public who are capable of paying the requisite attention to a serious work of art, and even less still is the number of those with a sufficiently developed musical culture. Consequently, it goes without saying that there was a whole bunch of spiteful cavillers who pronounced the Variations to be a complete failure.
Apart from this wonderful work, A. G. Rubinstein also played Beethoven's famous sonata in C♯ minor ("Quasi una fantasia"), a number of Preludes by Chopin, some of Schumann's Études for Pedal Piano, and a whole series of smaller piano pieces of his own. Schumann's Études are peculiar in that they were written for a piano equipped with a pedal keyboard (as in a church organ) on which the lowest, fundamental part (the bass voice) is executed. Mr Rubinstein finds it possible to play these delightful, albeit complicated, pieces on a piano with a normal, fingered keyboard without making any changes to them whatsoever. This is one of those virtuoso feats which only a first-rate artist can dare to carry out, and the effect produced by such technical dexterity was accordingly very astonishing indeed.
Amongst the shorter pieces by Mr Rubinstein himself, the following stand out especially by virtue of their charming originality: the Cinquième Barcarolle (in A minor) and a Serenade (in D minor). I shall not go into detail about the qualities of A. G. Rubinstein's inimitable art of interpretation, which are acknowledged by everyone all over the world. His sonorous and rich tone, his amazing gift for nuancing, the impetuous and inspired passionateness of his playing, the poetry and depth of his conception of the work to be performed—all this has, on a countless number of occasions, provoked dithyrambs from the press, storms of applause from audiences, and the veneration of professional musicians. It goes without saying that Mr Rubinstein achieved a tremendous success, and at the end of the concert the numerous admirers of his incomparable talent gave him a rapturous standing ovation, full of unanimous enthusiasm. Having gained the laurels which were due to him as the "king of pianists", as Mr Rubinstein is often referred to, he elicited no less rapturous ovations a few days later, when he appeared before the public again, this time in the capacity of a magnificent symphonic composer, as well as a highly skilful conductor.
At the eighth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, which took place last Friday, we were treated to a performance of Mr Rubinstein's great "Ocean" Symphony, conducted by the author himself. I am very glad that this time the audience was able to feel and appreciate the considerable merits of this symphony , which, despite being an early work by this renowned artist, may quite possibly be his finest. The "Ocean" Symphony is written in a broad, classical style, and consisted originally of four splendid movements, which are linked together by a remarkable unity of conception.
Mr Rubinstein subsequently—I know not why or with what purpose in mind—added a further two movements, of which the first, an Andante of a gentle and affectionate cast, has absolutely nothing in common with what we usually associate with the ocean and what it is like to live on the high seas. The second is certainly charming, what with its original, sharply accented rhythm, its harmonic details, and the fiery exposition of the main idea, but it is far less characteristic than the original Scherzo, which conveys, with remarkable plasticity, the rough merry-making and dancing of sailors.
However, no matter how beautiful the music in each of the six movements of this colossal symphony may be, one would be hard put to find anyone with a musical appetite which did not in the end feel somewhat cloyed, given the tremendous length of the work. As for the symphony's four original movements, there is in them a lot of overflowing vitality and youthful freshness. It is worth noting that Rubinstein is an example of an artist who attains maturity at an uncommonly early age. Indeed, in his earliest works we can see such a cohesion of organically connected forms as is normally only attainable after many years of hard work. On the other hand, we must in all fairness say that in the compositional career of this artist there is no forward movement, no development, no advancing towards greater perfection. Mr Rubinstein's finest works belong undoubtedly to his early period.
Apart from the "Ocean" Symphony, at this concert we also heard Schumann's orchestral work in three movements which is not called a 'symphony' simply because it does not comprise the standard number of four movements. And yet the enchanting beauty of this music is such as to be a match for quite a few 'real' symphonies!
Mme Muromtseva  then played, with consummate artistry, Liszt's brilliant, though rather empty piano concerto. She is one of the finest virtuosi we have ever heard in Moscow. In addition to a faultless technique, Mme Muromtseva has masses of taste and expressivity. It is said that A. G. Rubinstein, after hearing her play during the first rehearsal, went into raptures. I think that such praise must mean more to Mme Muromtseva than any favourable press review, and so I need not add anything else.
By way of a conclusion I cannot fail to say some words of praise for a private concert which was organized by Mme Aleksandrova and consisted mainly of vocal performances by those pupils of hers who are sufficiently well prepared for making their first public appearances. This concert once again confirmed how Mme Aleksandrova fully deserves her long-established reputation as an excellent singing teacher. The audience was particularly impressed and fascinated by the uncommonly beautiful and sonorous contralto voice of Mme Puskova . If this young singer doesn't let these early successes of hers go to her head, but carries on working hard on the development of her voice, then without a moment's hesitation one can prophesy that she has an enviable future ahead of her.
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist
This page was last updated on 13 February 2013