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Richly Russian

Reinhold Glière (1875-1956)

Russian Sailor's Dance from The Red Poppy ballet


Thanks to these dozen short variations on a Russian folksong, the Kiev-born, Belgian-descended Glière is known in America as little more than a one-hit wonder. And, colorful though the variations are, all he has done here is to orchestrate the traditional dance-song of the Russian sailors, Yablochko (Apple). In Russia, however, Glière is the well-known composer of concertos—including one for harp and another for wordless coloratura soprano— symphonies—especially his programmatic third symphony, depicting the exploits of the mythic hero Il'ya Murometz—operas, chamber music, programmatic overtures and symphonic poems, and ballets, including the nearly two-hour long Red Poppy, The Bronze Horseman and Taras Bulba.


After its premiere in 1927, The Red Poppy was acclaimed as the first "Soviet ballet." Its scenario, by Mikhail Kurilko, extols a "social realism" theme, with a setting in a 1920s Chinese port city where the harbormaster's cruel abuse of the "coolies" arouses sympathy in the visiting Russian ship captain. The poppy symbolizes love and freedom from tyrannical exploitation of the working class. 


Born halfway between Glazunov (1865) and Stravinsky (1882), Glière showed a discerning interest in the music of different ethnic cultures within the vast Soviet sphere, filtered through a late 19th century compositional vocabulary. The Red Poppy flirts romantically with Chinese pentatonic scales, offering a rich tapestry of local flavors and colors. 


Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18

Moderato; Allegro

Adagio sostenuto

Allegro scherzando


The failure of Rachmaninoff's brashly original First Symphony, conducted in 1897 by an apparently drunk Alexander Glazunov, torpedoed the young composer's confidence. (He never again heard it performed, and only recalled it once, wistfully and briefly, in his Symphonic Dances, written 45 years later, shortly before his death.) In the wake of the First Symphony fiasco, and despite other opportunities that opened up for him, Rachmaninoff lapsed into depression and apathy. He was finally persuaded to seek the counsel of hypnotherapist and amateur musician, Nikolai Dahl, whose ministrations paid off in a few months when Rachmaninoff began work on the C Minor concerto. The 1900 premiere, without the first movement, and the premiere of the complete work the following year, brought Rachmaninoff great success, restored confidence and fluency to his composing and established his distinctively expressive voice for good.  


Like Glière, Rachmaninoff remained firmly planted in the classico-romantic tradition, favoring full-flowering melodies, refreshingly syncopated rhythms and classical forms, but rejecting the sustained chromatic harmonies and aggressive, driving rhythms of compatriots Scriabin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. 


The first movement of the C Minor concerto was composed last. Its sonata form is introduced by tolling bells that recall the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's trail- blazing Boris Godunov (an effect so potent that it finds echoes in virtually every Russian composer to follow.) The dark first theme on the strings, with the piano in an accompanying role, makes its way to an improvisational keyboard flourish that leads to the haunting second theme in E-flat on the piano (which would later be appropriated for an American popular song). Another keyboard flourish launches a development on both first and second themes that rises to a great climax. The recapitulation reverses the originally assigned roles of piano and orchestra, with the solo horn reprising the second theme. In true classical tradition, the work begins in a minor key, builds much of its energy in the major and, at last, moves back into the minor for a climactic final flourish. 


After a brief modulation from C Minor to E, another of the composer's signature melodies (also appropriated for a pop song) opens the second movement, again with the piano accompanying the orchestra, then with roles reversed. Here, as in many other works, Rachmaninoff displays his mastery of  'endless melody' by ending phrases in suspense, like a novelist—in recent years Michael Crichton and Dan Brown come to mind—who concludes each chapter with such urgent anticipation of what happens next that the reader cannot put the book down. Restless ruminations on the theme surge toward a climax that precipitates a boisterous, then reflective, solo cadenza. Once again the piano returns to its role of accompanist to the orchestra, until a final solo closes the movement.


After martial orchestral gestures and a glittering display of pianism that combine to open the finale, beginning in E but quickly moving to C Minor, another broad melody appears (it too stolen for an American popular song.) Traded between the orchestra and the piano, it arrives at a restless passage with soft orchestral strokes over an uneasy pedal point and then abruptly charges back into the movement's opening episode and more keyboard fireworks. The ensuing development flirts with contrapuntal imitation on its way to the next big climax at the halfway mark. Once again the broad melodic theme flowers on the orchestra, then the piano, and soon a repeat of the unresolved pedal point. Now returns the development material and the ultimate rush to a thundering, virtuosic final climax that recalls the big tune, punctuated at the end by the composer's name sounded out in four emphatic chords.


Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Opus 100


Allegro marcato


Allegro giocoso


For all his skill, Glière never achieved the instinct for great melodies that would ensure Rachmaninoff's stature. But at age 27 he did accept an extremely precocious eleven-year-old as a student, Sergei Prokofiev—Seryozha as he was called by his doting parents—and instructed him at the Prokofiev home in Sontsovka (Eastern Ukraine.) Lessons during two summers gave the boy a useful foundation but ultimately only fueled his ambition to experiment with asymmetrical phrase structures, brutal rhythms and harmonically daring modulations and chord progressions. "The chief merit of my life (or, if you prefer it, its chief inconvenience) has always been the search for originality in my own musical language," he wrote in his 1946 autobiography, adding, "I abhor imitation and I abhor the familiar." Yet by the time he completed his first symphony (of seven), called "Classical," in 1917, he had already tempered his earlier "dense" textures with a simpler, clearer manner of composition.


When he wrote his Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev had recently composed the music for his Cinderella ballet; and the work on today's program could easily be called the "Cinderella" Symphony. It differs from Cinderella in two important ways: it replaces the gentler fairy tale-narrative with an edgier symphonic ambition, and it veers sharply in favor of the classical sonata example of Haydn (the composer he had honored and parodied in the "Classical" Symphony.) Nevertheless, the Fifth is shot full of music from Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet, which makes appearances in every movement, some obvious, some disguised.


Recycling material in conjunction with classical forms served the composer well throughout his career. He wrote variations on Beethoven's last piano sonata for his Second Symphony, fashioned his Third Symphony from his opera The Fiery Angel, and transformed music from his ballet The Prodigal Son into his Fourth Symphony.


Prokofiev completed the Fifth Symphony in one month. Immediately paraphrasing Cinderella, it begins with a memorable rising theme, softly intoned at the start, then gaining energy as it begins its journey. Soon a second, more excited theme begins on the high winds, leading toward a return of the first theme and, in turn, an elaborate development of both that climaxes with bristling dissonance. Out of the tumult the first theme calmly signals the recapitulation, with further development; the second theme then reappears, moving into a powerful finale that casts the first theme in bold face underscored by low percussion.


Serving as a scherzo, the sizzling second movement captures the spirit of the "Classical" Symphony, tinged with the sarcasm that marked the composer's early period. Between its gentle beginning and ending, the middle section swaggers with exuberance. The clock scene from Cinderella is at hand, with no missed shot at spoofing itself.


The adagio recaptures the fairy tale music of the ballet (with flavors from the composer's Romeo and Juliet also in evidence), yearning dreamlike for something elusively out-of-focus. Still the energy piles up to a grand symphonic climax. A slow introduction to the final movement quotes from the first movement's first theme, then opens a headlong rondo theme that recurs throughout, sandwiching recalled earlier material and new ideas.  


There is a second reason that the Fifth Symphony might be called the "Cinderella;" it turned out to be the composer's last happy ending. Despite the war, he was in an upbeat, even exhilarated, state of mind, as evidenced by a statement he released at the time describing the Symphony as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit," and adding, "The music matured within me. It filled my soul." Two weeks after conducting its premiere, in January 1945, he suffered a mild heart attack that caused him to tumble down a flight of stairs. He never fully recovered from the resulting concussion of the brain, and in the eight years that remained was forced by poor health to severely restrict his activities. Even so, those years did see the completion of the Piano Sonata No. 9, Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, the film music for Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, The Tale of the Stone Flower ballet and the Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, composed for Rostropovich.  

Program notes by Scott MacClelland



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