This week, I went down a Russian rabbit hole. My tongue-in-cheek theme “Russia, Russia, Russia!” (with Jan Brady voice intended…!), reminded me of how my first exposure to Russian music wasn’t through hearing symphonies or ballets with an orchestra alone, but, like so many other things in my early musical life was a result of exposure to this music via the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The first Russian work I encountered (and maybe my first opera?) was a BSO/TFC performance of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin. I remember helping my grandmother write in the transliterations to her score and hearing rehearsals and the final performance – sung by Galina Vishnevskaya, Nikolai Gedda, Benjamin Luxon and Paul Plishka (not a bad cast!). I bought my own piano/vocal score (which I still have) and entered in the transliterations for the chorus sections. I also have my grandmother’s choral score with autographs from Vishnevskaya, Gedda, Luxon and Plishka!
Not long after that, I went to all the rehearsals and a performance of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky; again, getting the piano/vocal score and writing in the transliterations. One of the members of the TFC at that time was a wonderful Russian bass named Vladimir Roudenko (what low notes!) who used to carpool with my grandmother and the rest of the Framingham gals into Boston for chorus rehearsals (five altos, a bass and me in Dot Love’s 1970 VW bus – always filled up with bread and cookies from the Pepperidge Farm thrift store she’d stop at on her way to the rendezvous). I had to pile way in the back and on those long commutes to rehearsals (the Milano’s helped fortify us!), Rudy taught me how to refine my transliterations and pronounce some of those interesting Slavic sounds! I will also add the fun fact here that my love affair with Russian culture at that time led me (in seventh grade) to get a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – which I set about to read. My English teacher at that time thought I was a bit of an odd child, reading Tolstoy and Dickens…
I couldn’t think of a more energizing start to our Russian sojourn than with a performance of Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla in an astonishingly clean and brisk(!) live performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic under the great Yevgeny Mravinsky. And…off we go!
After that bracing overture, I decided to step back to much earlier Russian music, namely Znamenny Chant – a unison, melismatic liturgical singing that has its own specific notation, called the stolp notation. The symbols used in the stolp notation are called kryuki (Russian: крюки, ‘hooks’) or znamena (Russian: знамёна, ‘signs’). You may know that the reason Russian liturgical music is always sung a cappella is that instruments are not allowed in churches. That is one reason how/why they developed such astonishingly ‘symphonic’ choral writing in the liturgical music. After the monophonic chant, the next excerpt is an anonymous 18th century work, followed by two choral ‘concerti’ by Dmitri Bortniansky, one four part and the other a double choir work.
Bortniansky (1751-1825) is a hugely important figure in Russian musical history, claimed by both Russia and Ukraine as their own. While he was a member of the Imperial Chapel Choir, he studied under its music director, the Italian composer Baldassare Galuppi, followed him to Italy and brought those influences back to St. Petersburg where he served at the Imperial court of Catherine the Great. He was so highly thought of that he was made Music Director of the Imperial Chapel Choir in 1796 – the first non-Westerner ever appointed to such a high position. I find his music an intriguing blend of Russian and Western sounding harmonies – in fact, the double chorus work I included sounds to me very much like Mendelssohn’s double chorus anthems, with a bit of a Russian twist!
I’m jumping a century or so to some excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s All-night Vigil – also known as the Vespers, Op. 37. I had to start with the Bogoroditse Devo (what else could I start with?!?!) and I follow that with the 12th movement, the ‘Great Doxology’ – and then move to the 9th movement, Blessed be the Lord (both movements 12 and 9 are based on Znamenny Chants).
I follow these choral excerpts with the final movement from Rachmaninoff’s –Symphonic Dances, Op 43 – this movement was Rachmaninoff’s farewell to orchestral composition and in it he quotes not only the ‘Dies irae’ motif (which he used throughout his life in various compositions as a motto). At the end of the movement, he quotes the end of the 9th movement of the ‘Vespers’ – even writing “Alliluiya’ in the score – you can hear the quote about two minutes from the end of either movement, if you want to isolate the quote! This performance comes from Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra…the orchestra and conductor for whom it was written…glorious! Changing pace a bit(!), we hear Pavel Chesnokov’s Spaséñye sodélal, one of the most beautiful works of early 20th century Russian liturgical music, I know; and a special favorite of male choruses everywhere.
Jumping back a few years, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture takes us into an Easter festival with orchestral chants and bells galore!
After that we move to Tchaikovsky and Onegin, the opera that started me on my Russian musical journey so many years ago. Three excerpts: the Act 1 ‘Peasant’s Chorus’; the Act II “Entr’acte and Waltz”; and the final searing scene in which Onegin (realizing he’s an empty soul and regretting spurning Tatiana years before) tries to get her to leave her husband and go with him – she ultimately refuses, spurns him and leaves him to his lonely life…to his great shock. A case of too little, too late if ever there was one…! We hear Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing this searing scene which concludes the opera.
Then for some real fun! In my opinion, there’s almost nothing in Russian Opera more over-the-top than the ‘Coronation Scene’ from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov – this 1963 performance by the great George London with the Bolshoi Opera Chorus and Orchestra…with London being the only non-Russian in the cast! Slava!!!
After that, I include another ‘Coronation Scene’, this from Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s film “Ivan the Terrible”. Fun fact, my first assignment as the newly minted Assistant Conductor of The Philadelphia Singers was to help prepare The Philadelphia Singers Chorale for summer performances of “Ivan the Terrible” at the Mann Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov. It was my official audition for the job (I passed…)!
While we’re on the subject of Prokofiev and music for Eisenstein’s films, I turn next to a complete performance of the Alexander Nevsky cantata (excerpted from the full film score). This performance by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov brings me right back to the back of that VW bus learning how to pronounced Russian from a transliteration!
For a bit of an auditory sorbet, I include three short secular works by composers of the late 19th and early 20th century: Taneyev, Falik, and Kalinnikov sung by the Houston Chamber Chorus and my wonderful colleague, Robert Simpson.
The next two works, Alfred Schnittke’s Choir Concerto (1985) and Rodion Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel (1988) represent the reclamation of the Russian Orthodox musical tradition by channeling the sounds and veiled liturgical content of the Orthodox tradition…in effect, picking up where Rachmaninoff, Chesnokov, et al left off in the early 20th century. I love both of these works, and here present excerpts from the longer works; I urge you to seek out and listen to the both in their entirety – they just might end up on a program…hmmm!
In deciding how to conclude – I’ve left so much great music out(!) – I couldn’t resist ending with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 50th anniversary in 1931. One of the masterpieces of 20th-century choral music, it seems a fitting place to end our Russian journey, quietly ebbing away on the words: “Alleluia, Dominum”…