Friday, 23 January 2015

The bitter tears of Sergey Rachmaninov


Rachmaninov at the premiere of The Miserly Knight, 11 January 1906, with I. Grizunov (the Duke), G. Baklanov (the Baron) and A. Bonachich (Albert)

How glad I am Vladimir Jurowski still believes in the most haunting of Rachmaninov's three operas, The Miserly Knight, its text adapted practically word for word from Pushkin's magnificent 'little tragedy' (Skupoi Ritsar in the Russian - 'covetous' may hit the mark even better than 'miserly', especially since, as I only learnt a couple of days ago, Pushkin intended seven plays for each of the deadly sins, though he only reached four. For more on the origin of this frontispiece, see further down).

Nearly a decade on from his Glyndebourne championship, Jurowski (pictured below by Chris Christodoulou) conducted an orchestrally unsurpassable performance of The Miserly Knight in Wednesday night's London Philharmonic Orchestra programme, a fascinating double bill about gold and greed with substantial excerpts from Wagner's Das Rheingold in the first half. When he recently decided to join the pre-performance talk originally to have been given by director Annabel Arden alone, I was privileged to be asked to chair the chat. That meant handing over the review to my Arts Desk colleague Matthew Wright; he got it, I think.

Talk and performance were absolutely fascinating and challenging. VJ never views things from a conventional angle, and the way he manipulates the English language to express complicated thoughts simply is a marvel. Besides, who else would have pulled off this programme? The Rheingold sequence was infinitely more satisfying than Dudamel's disastrously paced and ineptly snippeted 'Entry of the Gods into Valhalla' the other week. It had been advertised as orchestral music only, but then Jurowski realised there wasn't enough to stand by itself. He found out that Sergey Leiferkus, his Baron, towering protagonist of The Miserly Knight, had sung Alberich and it all flowed from there. Thus we got the whole of the introduction, first scene and interlude up to the Valhalla theme, with the Rhinemaidens, in Arden's semi-staging, undulating above and below the front row of choir stalls. The Woglinde, recent Guildhall graduate Natalya Romaniw, took a minute to settle, but what a voice this is - I hear a potential Sieglinde in there.

Jurowski made the score gleam and undulate, as if we were in a finer acoustic that the RFH's (when I returned in the talk to his question of doing a whole Ring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which he'd brought up at an earlier meeting, he said they'd need a whole new construction to house it). There was perhaps a touch too much care for the descent to and ascent from Nibelheim, and the patching felt a bit conspicuous from here up to the final sequence, but the anvils - 8, said the programme; 18, said VJ; 10 came on for a bow - resonated marvellously. Nor were the gods very Wagnerian-divine, but it was good to have the Rhinemaidens at the back rather than offstage, chilling the blood. And yes, we got six harps.

The Rachmaninov was, by contrast, impassioned, absolutely sure in every gesture - having played for the Glyndebourne 2004 production, the LPO still seems to have the music in its blood - and enshrined the most magnificent monologue in the operatic world from a still-untiring Leiferkus (there was a point a couple of years ago where I thought the voice was worn out, but little sign of that here). Annabel's finest touch was to find, unforced, a second role for the singer-actresses portraying Wagner's Rhinemaidens, as young Norns hovering above the Baron - especially valid since, as she pointed out, Russian abstractions like Death and Fate are feminine. The three made it work chillingly well.

We also spoke of how Rachmaninov takes a leaf out of Wagner in his slow-burn crescendos. There are two, the biggest, which seems to go on for ever before imploding, when the Baron, Bluebeard-like, lights candles and opens his six jewel-caskets. But the one with the more poetry to go with it is perhaps the more haunting in both music and text. Thus James E Falen's translation, preserving the Shakespearean iambic pentameters of Pushkin's original:

Ah yes! If all the tears, the blood and sweat
That men have shed for such a hoard as this
Should suddenly gush forth from out the earth,
There'd be a second flood - and I'd be drowned
Inside my trusty vaults.

As luck would have it, the fourth instalment of the Glyndebourne film downloaded to YouTube - I don't know for how long (and I'd urge you to buy the DVD, which is beautifully presented) - starts at exactly this point. So you can hear how Rachmaninov develops the extraordinary four-note ostinato of the third movement from his Suite No. 1 for two pianos, 'Tears' ('Slyozi'). This in turn derives from the bells of Novgorod, which haunted Rachmaninov from childhood. So that comes first here in the partnership of Nikolay Lugansky and Vadim Rudenko - my CD benchmark is Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch - and is followed by Leiferkus in the middle of Scene 2. Arden's production has the masterstroke of an aerialist, Matilda Leyser (now married to Phelim McDermott, Annabel told me), who scared the life out of me with her big eyes, as the fateful spirit of avarice.

Pushkin's monologue is great in itself: I've determined to learn it in Russian, as I started to learn Pimen's speech from Boris Godunov; let's see if I can get further this time  (Russians always appreciate you quoting some Pushkin - J can impress with 'Shto dyen gryadushy mne gotovit' since Tchaikovsky set Lensky's lines very faithfully). I'd also like to do my own translation and I've just discovered these illustrations for the Little Tragedies by a talented young artist, Ievgen Kharuk - very much in the tradition of Russian book illustration (though Ievgen is from Kiev, more power to his pen). Note the key motif from The Miserly Knight on the cover for all four works.

Look at more of his work here. It should, of course, be published. On which note, it saddens but doesn't surprise me to learn of the latest philistinism to dog the better part of Putin's Russia: the great publications known as 'thick' journals, a glory of the Russian intelligentsia even in Soviet times, are in danger of extinction and the dangerous fraud who's supposed to be the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky (the one who said Tchaikovsky wasn't gay - see the footnote here - and who went on to even greater glories), won't lift a finger to help

 In the meantime, the staff of Moskva, the journal which first published Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, are ploughing on this month and the next unsalaried to try and save their great institution. The Interpreter has its rigorous finger on the pulse of this as of so much else. I know, pace David Damant's comment to a recent post, that it's partial as an instrument of opposition, but it does its best to provide chapter and verse against the scandalously nebulous propaganda pouring out of Russia at the moment.

A final, not unconnected, point: a far more incriminating photo than the above from 2004, along with detailed facts, here point to why there should be an immediate end to Anna Netrebko's hit-and-miss career in the west. If she was naive to think that giving money to a Donetsk opera and theatre company to carry on had nothing to do with separatist propaganda, then she should definitely have stopped when they asked her to hold the flag. Simple equation: if you pay to see Anna Netrebko, you're funding the daily murder of civilians in a war within Ukraine's legal borders - no doubt by both sides -  which the Ukrainians did nothing to start. And as a general principle, applicable to Gergiev too, the author of the article, Julia Khodor Beloborodov of Arts Against Aggression, is surely right:

Artists and their art can stand apart from politics. However, artists who use their artistic reputations to further a political cause cannot then be allowed to hide behind that reputation and claim to not be political actors.

Anyway, Netrebko's Iolanta and Four Last Songs discs are poor. That may be beside the point, but at least I wrote about those before I knew anything about this. 


Susan Scheid said...

David: Remarkable post. I am well and truly behind this week, but I've marked both Rachmaninovs for listening. (Notice the v. I'm learning . . .) Jurowski seems to be the ideal as an inventive programmer. Very much unlike my experience yesterday--in my effort to hear all the Shostakovich symphonies (except 2, 3, 12) live, I signed on for a Shos 5 with Long Yu conducting, paired with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Jurowski, first of all, would have chosen a more interesting Shos work; second of all would have paired it with something more resonant.

Moving on to Pushkin, the pre-concert talk was fine, but also peculiar in a couple respects that did bring to mind conversations we've had here and there. First, the commentator noted "both sides" of interpreting the finale, quoting Volkov for the one (with some recognition of its lack of authenticity), but then pointedly refused to take a stand on the Volkov. (As you know, I'm with Fay, and from a point of view of good scholarship, I think there's only one stand to take.) The other thing was, and more to the point here, she didn't mention the Pushkin/Regeneration quote. I went up afterward to ask, thinking perhaps I'd misremembered (I later confirmed I remembered correctly), and was left with the impression that she wasn't aware of it. This is now the second time in which I seemed to be aware of something that an "expert" didn't know. It's a weird feeling. Anyway, it led me back to the Pushkin poem, which is a beauty.

David said...

If I'd known you were going to that concert, Sue, I'd have recommended the garlic and crucifix. Long Yu is possibly The Worst Conductor In A Position of Power, seemingly an apparatchik with umpteen posts in China. His Cockaigne Overture with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was the worst of anything I've heard (look back to the post 'Elgar the European'). And that turned out only to be the tip of the iceberg from what two players told me about rehearsals. Still, the deal was the orchestra's trip to China...

So I'm curious to know how it went.

And yes, the Pushkin setting quotation is pretty much a first stop in any talk on Shostakovich 5. The 'Carmen' references are optional and more debateable.

David Damant said...

In 1972 I stayed in the Australian Embassy in Moscow, which looked after students from Australia and New Zealand studying in the USSR ( rather necessary in view of the regime at that time). On one occasion a young New Zealand student ( of Russian literature) arrived for a drink trembling with excitement. He had stood at the tomb of Pushkin

Susan Scheid said...

David: I remember that comment of yours, though I didn't recall for sure if it was Long Yu. I did suspect, signing on to this, that he might be the one, and I was prepared (somewhat) for the worst. So, as Allen Ginsberg might say, I'm with you in Rockland (this is very oblique, just a silly way of saying I'm with you on this). It's not always easy for me to discern what is the conductor and what is the work, and in this case, my judgment was further complicated by a dawning recognition that I absolutely would not put this in the top tier of Shos's symphonies (and for more reasons than the finale). But I'm suspecting now, from what you say, that my being left absolutely cold by the Largo, particularly, may have had more to do with his conducting than I thought. Glad for your confirmation on the Pushkin. I was really surprised by that.

Susan Scheid said...

Have now had the chance to listen to the two Rachmaninov selections, and can't thank you enough for drawing attention to how the Suite's ostinato is developed in the opera. It's certainly not a connection I would have been able to draw myself, even had I known the opera (the Suite I know, though I haven't listened to it for a very long time), but it's immediately apparent, and a pleasure to hear that connection. Rachmaninov wrote a lot of very beautiful music, didn't he? (Really a rhetorical question.)

Susan Scheid said...

David D: That is a wonderful, wonderful, story about the young New Zealander!

David said...

Indeed, touching anecdote about the young New Zealander. Russians really don't overestimate Pushkin: the analogy is not so much with Shakespeare - no one quite storms his highest heights - but with Mozart in the range and diversity of human interest.

Rach is one of those souls who only ever 'composed himself' - but with what lugubrious intensity, as in that monologue and 'Tears'. He could be joyous and noble but, as Vladimir pointed out in the conversation, never actually funny; I don't think he had a sense of humour.

David Damant said...

Can I question "funny"...a "sense of humour" in its best definition is the sign that the persons who have that humour can see the masks of tragedy and comedy as one, and can distance themselves from the tragic elements and see them in perspective. To be jolly about happy things and serious about serious things is not to have a sense of humour, but to be rather childish. The ambiguity of the human predicament is not seen by some cultures - which as a result can be dangerous

David said...

It's true that Rachmaninov didn't have much of a perspective on tragedy (obviously he had some, or he wouldn't have been able to shape his major works as well as he did). Tchaikovsky seems to have had more of a sense of humour. So it's not a cultural thing.

Geo. said...

Sorry to read about your recent health issues; hope things are better, and that you got to see the ENO Meistersinger (sorry, Mastersingers) in good shape, given the good buzz that it seems to be getting, and which ENO needs now, for sure. But back to the topic here: I finally got around a while back to hearing the LPO/Jurowski concert on iPlayer, with Szymanowski, Scriabin, & Rach 1. It's the more impressive that such a concert with no popular works on it at all could get the crowd that you mentioned, which is some tribute to the LPO's marketing, presumably, as well as the 'long tail' effects of "The Rest Is Noise". Rach 1 is on my wish list of "100 classical works to hear before I die", and YNS conducted it in Philly last October, but I couldn't schedule time to travel. Not sure if/when I'll get another chance.

The LPO certainly sounded on whiplash form with VJ in Rach 1, particularly in the finale. It was interesting to hear on iPlayer VJ's analogy to Mahler 6, which I hadn't thought about, but there's something to that, even if Rach 1 is less nihilistic in its close.

There was also the recent BBC SO performance of both Rach 3 (concerto) and Nielsen 3 on iPlayer. While the 1st movement of Federico Colli's interpretation had perhaps too much slow burn in the 1st movement, it made more sense given that he was a 48-hours notice sub. My main interest in that concert was the Sibelius opener and Nielsen 3, to be honest. Terrific work in both. It really does sound as though Oramo and the orchestra are getting better and better together, if I'm not mistaken. Hopefully a contract extension is in the works, although one wonders about the renewal of the BBC's charter and how that might affect things (I have no idea how that works, of course).

Speaking of Nielsen, one happy shock of the SLSO's schedule next season is that we are getting Nielsen 3 (not to mention Messiaen's Des canyons aux etoiles, but on the latter, I knew for months that it was coming, unlike the Nielsen, which I did not see coming).

David said...

You can hop on a plane, Geo., and catch Rach 1 later this month conducted by....Gergiev. Actually it's a piece I'm sure he conducts well but thanks to my self-imposed embargo (broken only for Shchedrin's Levsha), I won't be there.

Oramo said in interview - which I have to put up on The Arts Desk before the fourth instalment in the Nielsen cycle next week - that the BBCSO strings were the only ones he'd not had to knock into shape: high praise for Belohlavek's work.

I'm much better, thanks, though getting back on my bike yesterday for the first time in three weeks was hard going. Not wishing to sound arrogant, but I led the good buzz about the superlative Mastersingers with the first review up on Sunday morning (other five-starrers promptly followed). Now THAT really is worth getting on a plane for. Wonderful time yesterday at my opera class, Richard Jones entertaining me and the students with his off-centre observations

Geo. said...

Found the LSO program with Rach 1. It is an interesting concert, with Balakirev's Tamara and the Glazunov Violin Concerto on the same roster. YNS' Philadelphia program also had 3 works that I'd never heard live. YNS is leading all 3 Rachmaninov symphonies in Philly this season. He just re-upped for another 5 years, much to the disappointment, I'm sure, of the one critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer who's a VJ fan-boy big time. I might have mentioned in another thread that I heard VJ lead The Bells last season, which is another one to take off the classical bucket list. I think that my Rachmaninov bucket list is now pretty much down to much of the solo piano music, rather than the orchestral works. (Well, maybe also his operas.)

Great to know that Oramo is doing so well with the BBC SO. It also does sound as though Belohlavek did gently and quietly lay the solid groundwork for Oramo in JB's 6 seasons, certainly a good thing, if unappreciated by those on the outside generally (present company excepted, of course).

BTW, do you know if Oramo will get the Last Night this year? Given that it's Sibelius and Nielsen year, that would make sense, especially that he knows how to handle the Last Night. I also wonder what will happen with the intended Sibelius symphony cycle at The Proms this summer, as it was supposed to be Minnesota and Vanska originally, but the lockout knocked that out.

David said...

No need to choose between YNS and VJ: they're both wonderful in different ways, in my opinion: Yannick the more open-hearted, Vlad the great thinker (which is not to say he's always short on feeling).

From talking to a Proms-related person last night - they keep their cards very close to their chests before press announcements - I understand that there will still be Sibelius symphonies + Nielsen concertos. No idea who's conducting, whether it's now divvided up. Personally I'd be glad not to see Vanska in the roster: I don't like his Sibelius at all for the most part. Also don't know who's conducting the Last Night (not that I ever care that much, though it was good to see Alsop there)

Geo. said...

I see your point about contrasting YNS and VJ and their styles. Just to explain the Philly thing before moving on, the one critic (to name names, Peter Dobrin) was totally gobsmacked the first time that VJ conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, and has since been VJ's #1 fan-boy in Philly. He openly campaigned to get him hired as the next music director after Eschenbach, which obviously didn't work out.

I guess that we agree to disagree on Vanska, which is fair. I should also point out that in the whole Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute-disaster, Vanska emerged as the shining hero with audiences, and with the orchestra overall. Vanska can be a tough customer in working orchestras in rehearsal, and it's not hard to surmise that some MN Orch musicians might have chafed at times. But the appallingly shabby treatment by the orchestra's prior management and board, and Vanska's standing up to them, most probably wiped out any ill feelings that any musicians might have had towards him.

Back to Rachmaninov (finally); the SLSO is doing PC # 2 this week, with Andre Watts and Juraj Valcuha. I'll probably give this one a miss, since I don't need to hear either work live again any time soon. However, in April, we're set to get Simon Trpceski in PC # 3, with Vasily Petrenko as guest (his less-than-wise utterances about women conductors having been pretty much swept under the rug by now). The 2nd half is Scriabin's The Divine Poem, which will be a curiosity to hear live.

David said...

The Petrenko/Trpceski combination is a fiery one. Even I have forgiven Petrenko's crass comment about women conductors, above all in the light of his Shostakovich 4 and Berio Sinfonia with the European Union Youth Orchestra at the Proms: my top concert of 2014. He's tricksy to interview before an audience, plays to the crowd and tries to make a fool of the interviewer in my experience. But he's certainly the business, up there with Jurowski and Yannick.