Monday, 15 February 2010

A horde of old Cossacks

Funny the classics I've missed out on since the glorious year of Russian studies back in 1982 (had I done it in first year at university, I'd unquestionably have changed to a Russian degree course - my only big regret in life). Last year, writing on the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas for Aldeburgh, I finally caught up with Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata and was shaken to the core. Now it's Janacek time again, and in preparing something on the Russophilia of the master for ENO's programme on the new production of Katya Kabanova, I thought it was time to read Gogol's Taras Bulba, that 'colossal portrait in a small frame' as Belinsky described it of the wild southern Cossacks.

So what is it, 'one of the ten greatest books of all time' (as if one would trust that homophobe Hemingway) or a 'dreadful..."colourful romance" ' from which, Nabokov thought, Gogol was rescued in the nick of time? Well, I guess I'd rather dash through Taras Bulba than plough my way through Dead Souls a third time, for all its top-notch comic moments. Maybe the evocation of the barbaric Ukraine in the 16th-17th centuries is a fantasy, but what a vivid and engaging fantasy! Repin's marvellous pictures, taken from studies of Cossacks he knew, are certainly on a par (above is one of several celebrated representations of 'the Zaporozhye Cossacks writing an insulting letter to the Turkish Sultan').

How one comes to feel for the veteran commander with his sly knowledge of Horace and his two sons, fated from the first. Do we blame the spirit of the age for the way they had to live? In a half-interesting, half-infuriating introduction to the Modern Library edition, Robert D. Kaplan summarises well:

The great divisions in Gogol's Taras Bulba are those of civilizations: the Eastern Orthodox Dnieper Cossacks are pitted against the Catholic Poles and the Muslim Turks and Tatars. This is a world so coarse, and so unreceptive to enlightenment, that freedom means only the freedom to express oneself through a stultifying yet energizing group identity - a sad commonplace in many parts of the world today, where dictatorships are crumbling and real democracy is weak or nonexistent. In such places, a fury burns that is beyond the cultivated bourgeois imagination. Gogol communicates this fury brilliantly.

Alas, Kaplan has to go and spoil it all by comparing America's 'robust passion' with the 'effete, bureaucratic and defeatist' policies of Europe which, he says, are in for a horrible shock from the eastern hordes. Well, whatever the correspondences with today, Taras Bulba is a cracking good read, full of sparkling detail and loving evocation of the Steppes.

Janacek's tone poem, marvellous on its own terms, gives you little idea of what to expect from Gogol other than the euphoric Slavic ideal at the end. I was knocked for six by Neumann's recording with the Czech Philharmonic, having been too slavishly bound to Mackerras. The Sinfonietta on the same CD has some of the most hallucinatory, howling horn playing I've ever heard. Belatedly, I see that Jurowski's fabulous LPO programme on Saturday, which I'd singled out by virtue of another chance - post-Rattle - to hear Suk's Asrael Symphony, actually begins with Taras Bulba. That, if I remember correctly, will be the first time I've ever heard it in a concert hall. Great Vladimir, canny programmer ever, continues a mini Gogolfest next Thursday with Shostakovich's unfinished Gamblers plural - in which a superb Russian line-up will be part-directed by our friend from the Arcola Jenufa and the RSAMD War and Peace Irina Brown - and his suite from The Nose.

Finally, while we're on the subject of implacable hatreds, and Gogol's questioning of whether any tenderness can flourish in such societies, don't fail to hear Chandos's CD issue of MacMillan's The Sacrifice. I'll say no more about its circumstances; it's all the more powerful if you don't know what's about to hit you.

J MacM and his librettist Michael Symmonds Roberts were very happy with my booklet babble when I sent it for approval, so I take a childish pride in reproducing the composer's observation that 'the note is marvellous. It's just what we need.' The cynical might say, well, they would think that, wouldn't they? A pat on the back for the only opera of the last 20 years, post-Nixon in China , I reckon will be around for a very long time was hardly likely to displease. But I'm sincere - and others are welcome to challenge. Marc Rochester, writing in the International Record Review, asked whether I was 'over-egging the cake' when I compared MacMillan's word-setting to Britten's. And came up with the answer: 'Not a bit of it. The Sacrifice is an undoubted classic of our time and a worthy successor to the great Britten operas of the last century'. Good - it's not just me, then.


Gavin Plumley said...

Ah! I see we're head-down on the same masterpiece this week... and for the same reason. That second act is a constant marvel.

David said...

It all is, isn't it (if that's Katya you're referring to)? I couldn't agree with the criticisms you made in your Glyndebourne Touring Opera programme note of the conventional aspects to Jenufa's first act; it seems to me complete genius the way he bends those conventions to his own expressive will from the very first bars.

The only problem I have with Katya is its uniquely unredemptive end, so at loggerheads with all the other great Janacek finales (among which I include Osud).

JVaughan said...


Which, if either, of the Mackerras recordings of Katya do you like best?

Thanking you _VERY_ much, I visited that page to which you referred me re _Romeo_ _And_ _Juliet_, and not only found that Rozhdestvensky recording, but it was both on sale, for around $25, and the price was indeed given in US Dollars! I bought it, though might have waited had it not been on sale since I think I have been _QUITE_ naughty this month with my pleasure purchases! I do not live atop Fort Knox!

J. V.

p.s. I have not yet gotten _The_ _Greek_ _Passion_, but, despite again being too loose, must probably buy it within the next month, and I think you know why.

David said...

Well done, JV - you have to snap up these Melodiya recordings while they're around. And how they come and go.

Mackerras's first, pioneering Katya with the VPO is my favourite by a long way. Much as I adore Benackova as one the most beautiful soprano voices of all time, she was getting on a bit by the time of the Supraphon recording, and it's all too soft-grained. I wonder if Gavin agrees, since I see it's in his 'recent listening' sidebar.

There's a very interesting Chandos recording sung in English, very expressively phrased by the splendid Carlo Rizzi and with Cheryl Barker conveying bags of character. But of course the original Czech is hors concours.

JVaughan said...

I tried to append re the Rizzi _Katya_ to my previous comment, but it got into the wrong place, and thus I erased it.

What I was going to say was that I understand that recording to use a compromise orchestration, and thus I passed on it, though it could have proved quite helpful, as their Mackerras _Makropoulos_ did, since I must admit to not yet knowing this opera. I may have already told you that I very much like Miss Barker's Amelia Marty! One wonders why Sir Charles was not put in charge of this Katya, possibly because he had already recorded it those two other times? Do we know if Chandos ever plan to record _From_ _The_ _House_ _Of_ _The_ _Dead_, preferably in an edition of which Janacek would have approved?

J. V.

p.s. I hope this Melodiya _Romeo_ _And_ _Juliet_ includes a detailed
scenario in English!

David said...

I can't say what's compromised about the orchestration. It certainly isn't an old retouched version. Rizzi is just as good as Mackerras in his way, I think.

I doubt if Sir Charles will have the strength for Z mrtveho domu - it's very taxing. Just after I first saw it, as an impressionable teenager, I went down with the worst bout of flu I've ever had - so feverish!

The booklet for the Melodiya is in badly-translated gobbledegook, and quite amusing. I can send you a copy of the number by number synopsis I wrote for the LSO concert (reprinted in the CD set).

Will said...

My CDs of The Sacrifice, ordered on your recommendation, should be waiting for me when we get home from our holiday next Monday. I checked it out further, including reviews, and it does seem to be a most successful piece--I'm very much looking forward.

JVaughan said...

I think I will write to Mr. McGregor since it was he, or a guest if applicable, who I first heard discussing whatever compromise(s) was/were made in the Rizzi Katya. And why does Sir Charles, who we know knows his business, pronounce Kabanova with the stress on the second syllable, whereas I understand Czech to invariably stress the first? Maybe, speculating, Maestro Rizzi just softened the rougher edges through adjustment of dynamics and tone colour.

Thanking you _VERY_ much for your kind offer, do you plan to send this scenario via E-Mail, either as an attachment or in the actual body, or via "snail mail?" If the latter, I will, of course, need to send you my postal address, which I would do.

I had some _MOST_-helpful and kind communications with the Prokofiev Archive(s?) in 2005, and actually thought that Mrs. Mann is a man. I also communicated with Dr. Hibberd. I hope they are both faring well.

J. V.

David said...

'Kabanova' is a Russian name, of course, though often in the text they sing of the 'KAbanovs'. Sir Charles in any case maintains a subtle stress on the second syllable, though the first in Czech should always be the strongest.

Your R&J synopsis should be with you.

Noel = masc; Noelle = feminine, n'est ce pas?

JVaughan said...

As is sometimes said at least, it does not pay to assume, and I assumed, since I think a number of Czech names end in "ova," that this was another such.

Of course you are right about the masculine and feminine in French, and now know what the problem was. My reading software pronounces Mrs. Mann's first name as if it were neal, certainly masculine. I think there may be foreign-language options with this software, but am unaware whether or not multiple languages can be set, and how good the pronunciation would be were I to try any such.
With _MANY_ renewed thanks,

J. V.

Gavin Plumley said...

I do prefer the Supraphon Mackerras recording to the VPO 'original' Mackerras version. It frames the work in a romantic context, which I admire and the Czech Phil are, for my money, on cracking form. I forgive Benackova's age on the disc, because she sounds so wonderful, and Peter Straka and Dagmar Peckova are fantastic, to say nothing of Eva Randova. The Rizzi recording is good and full-blooded... though I'm very fond of my radio performance with Barker, Straka and Gordon Gietz under Behlolavek from Geneva.

I write quite extensively about the ending of KK in my ENO programme note... I think Janacek sets it up perfectly. Yes, it's unredemptive, but and an entirely depressing take on the tale, but I think he indicates in the very first bars that Kát'a's situation is futile.

Noting the 'conventional' aspects of the first act of Jenufa wasn't meant to be a criticism, per se. I adore that act and think it shows Janacek at the height of his powers... dramaturgically, however, it is less fluid than the second and third acts - showing, as Tyrrell says, its number opera roots. None the worse for that, but it's stylistically quite different. It is also always a challenge to convince an audience of the naturalism of the pezzo concertato. Lehnhoff nearly pulls it off, but it can seem like a major gear change.

David said...

Just playing the two preludes alongside each other, I find the Czech Phil impossibly soft. I mean, I love the resonant Supraphon set up, but there just isn't enough bite. And in any case the VPO provides the romantic warmth too. Soft AND strong, in my view, is Rizzi.

Take your point, Gavin, about Jenufa Act 1, but even in terms of flow I find nothing older-fashioned. The ensemble is such a great idea - on one proverb only - that I always look forward to it (and it's only a minute and a half long!)

As always, discussion of Janacek's speech-melodies can blind us to how much conventional lyric warmth he allows the orchestra to carry (in Katya Act 1 especially). Both Musorgsky and Prokofiev came to realise that dry speechy-singy writing wasn't enough.

Gavin Plumley said...

Well I'm sticking by my benchmark... reminds me of hearing the work under Haitink (which is when I fell in love with it for the first time). But I'll always listen to other versions (I have a few).

Yes, absolutely... the idea of 'speech melodies' sounds so desiccated and really only Kabanicha is the stickler stylistically with that. KK is such a fabulously lyrical work and with Vixen returning to the ROH, it's a great Janacek spring.

David said...

Indeed - your man LJ and mine SSP are both having a great time this year...Don't forget the 'world premiere' of the Jaroslav Smolka-arranged Katya Kabanova Suite tonight at the Barbican (I'll talk just a little about it in a half hour devoted mostly to Martinu) and tomorrow is Jurowski's Taras Bulba...and alas, I've missed all the Czech stuff being done by the fab Dante Quartet and friends at Kings Place.

JVaughan said...

I hope this is not yet another elementary question, but are not those little clipped repetitions of word phrases in Jenufa a Janacekism, and a quite-interesting one, though I do not hear much of that, unless I am forgetting something, in _Makropoulos_? I have yet to examine the structure of _Jenufa_ since, to now, I have been concentrating on the text and the drama. The Kostelnicka is _CERTAINLY_ a terror in Act II, and is not Dame Josephine particularly effective? I know virtually nothing of La Silja, apparently one of the most-admired Janacek singers of all time. I have yet to warm to the _Vixen_, though maybe this could be partly due to having an "off-mike" recording from the RAM, though in English. As I said I would do, I wrote to Mr. McGregor re the Rizzi _Katya_, and await whatever he might decide to say, if anything.

J. V.

Colin Dunn said...

David, thank you for your commendation of James MacMillan's The Sacrifice. It's a great opera and one that I look forward to getting to know in the coming years. You are quite right about his word setting: it is faultless shows great consideration not only for the text itself but also the singers.