The Tale of Tsar Sultan – Suite
Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat, Op.75 [completed and orchestrated by Sergei Taneyev]
Symphony No.1 in G minor
Alexander Markovich (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The “Revealing Tchaikovsky” series has come up with some interesting programmes, but none more than this. True, it got off to a so-so beginning with the suite from “The Tale of Tsar Sultan” (1900), but Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic music seldom impresses outside of the theatre – its technical prowess and instrumental finesse unable to compensate for a lack of strong or memorable invention.
The scenario to the opera treads a thin line between the fantastic and the daft, but this at least enables the composer to depict the ceremonious return of the Tsar, the banishment of his wife and child when floated out to sea in a barrel (a lengthy evocation ‘awash’ with Wagnerian overtones), and the triumphal reconciliation of father and son in three ‘Musical Pictures’ – each prefaced with a fanfare-like gesture such as endows the suite with a degree of unity. Neeme Järvi is no stranger to this music, his deft and precise direction making the most of Rimsky’s stylish if insubstantial music.
What followed was real rarity. Although having had several recordings in recent years, Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto (1893) has never approached the popularity of his Second, let alone his First. In part, this is to do with the work’s provisional nature: having abandoned what was to have been his sixth symphony (itself reconstructed during the late 1950s by the musicologist Semyon Bogatryryev as “Symphony No.7” and which enjoyed a brief vogue in the West), the composer recast it as a piano concerto but realised only the first movement in this new medium. His pupil Sergey Taneyev gave the posthumous premiere early in 1895, before he orchestrated the other two movements himself (these being listed as Andante and Finale, Opus 79) and which he then performed two years later.
The opening Allegro brillante has enjoyed a modicum of success, largely owing to George Balanchine’s sparkling ballet of that name, but its musical qualities are undoubted: the equivocal opening theme on bassoons resonates in the memory, while the second main theme anticipates Rachmaninov and its energetic successor is a fine instance of Tchaikovsky’s effortlessly balancing between the balletic and symphonic. Alexander Markovich undoubtedly had its measure, not least in the demanding cadenza which, more than in either of the earlier concertos, is superbly integrated into the developmental portion of what is a finely-judged though never predictable sonata movement.
If the Andante is less successful overall, this is because the music audibly betrays its non-pianistic origins – often the piano-writing is too obviously ‘laminated’ onto the orchestral texture – while the central build-up is elaborated in terms (no doubt thanks to Taneyev) which are a little too Brahmsian for late Tchaikovsky. Yet the initial chorale-like theme has thoughtful eloquence, and its return near the end of the movement brings an inward intensity that Markovich realised unerringly – the ‘pin drop’ silence in the auditorium underlining this fact. The Allegro maestoso finale sets off in Tchaikovsky’s most impulsive vein, and while its lyrical second theme is not quite distinctive enough to sustain the apotheosis made of it towards the close, the bravura interplay between soloist and orchestra needs no additional justification. If not a lost masterpiece, Tchaikovsky’s Third Piano Concerto has enough substance to warrant more performances than it receives – as Markovich and Järvi amply confirmed.
Much the same could be said of Vasily Kalinnikov’s First Symphony (1896). A composer whose brief career was blighted by tuberculosis (he died just before his 35th-birthday), Kalinnikov left a small but notable legacy – of which this piece enjoyed a popularity after its Kiev premiere that persisted well into the last century. Hardly surprising, given that the first movement’s first theme has an arresting mystery, while its successor is a melody to rank with the best that Borodin conceived. Nor does Kalinnikov rest on his laurels in this respect – deploying his themes in an extensive development whose recourse to fugal and other contrapuntal procedures is mercifully free of pedantry and, moreover, at the service of a genuinely symphonic momentum.
The Andante is arguably even finer – its soulful opening enhanced by an ostinato on harp and strings which is no less evocative than the cor anglais theme it underpins, while a more plaintive oboe melody provides subtle contrast. The scherzo is more conventional, its rumbustious outer sections – redolent of an earlier Russian generation – framing a lilting theme again given to oboe, while the finale draws in both of the first movement’s themes in an energetic and formally free fantasia which caps what has gone before by culminating in a return of the Andante’s main theme as its all-out apotheosis.
Taken as a whole, Kalinnikov’s First Symphony might not be more than the sum of its finest parts, but its sheer melodic appeal (a quality largely absent from Glazunov’s symphonies of the period) and its overall formal cohesion cannot be gainsaid. Neeme Järvi has championed the work, live and on a Chandos recording, over many years and its inclusion makes sense in a series such as this. The London Philharmonic’s playing was of a quality to suggest that its musicians also appreciated its many virtues – the woodwind playing being particularly felicitous. Good to see the relationship with Järvi is set to continue: perhaps Kalinnikov’s hardly less worthwhile Second Symphony will find its way onto the orchestra’s schedule before long.
The concert concluded with none other than ‘The Flight of the Bumble-Bee’ – banished by Rimsky from the “Tsar Saltan” suite, but here functioning appropriately as a nimble 70-second encore.