Archive for Modest Mussorgsky

The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , on November 2, 2017 by telescoper

Last night, as part of an ongoing effort to enjoy as much culture as I can while I still have the chance, I went to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a concert of music by Ravel, Debussy and Mussorgsky given by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. It was a wonderful programme of music, performed with all the colour and verve and professionalism you’d expect from the Hallé.

First up we had the Rapsodie Espagnole, one of Ravel’s first compositions for the full orchestra (although in the original version was for two pianos, he orchestrated it a year after that version was published). For a piece of only about 15 minutes duration its four movements are full of changes of mood, tempo and tonality, which makes it a great piece to warm up both orchestra and audience.

Following that, we had the gorgeous Première Rhapsodie for orchestra and clarinet soloist by Claude Debussy. Written just a couple of years after the Ravel, and inhabiting a similarly impressionistic sound world, this was originally as a test piece for clarinettists at the Paris Conservatoire. The solo part was played with great agility and feeling by young Spanish musician Sergio Castello López. I’d never noticed before how similar the way the clarinet ends this piece is to the opening statement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written about 14 years later…

And then it was time for Ravel’s little inspiration, Boléro, which is easily his most famous composition despite the fact that, as Ravel himself put it, `it has no music in it’. What he meant by that is that it doesn’t have any variation or thematic development or invention, but was written deliberately as an experiment to see how far he could get in writing a work that was entirely based on rhythm and repetition. The result was a smash hit and earned him a very great deal of money, but he grew to resent the fact that it was so much more popular than the other works he himself thought were much better. I know some people who hate this piece, but I think it’s great fun and always enjoy hearing it. Last night was no exception.

The composition of Boléro is so simple that even a non-musician like me can play it. It’s basically written in a slow 3/4 time signature on which is superimposed the following figure:

The second part is basically a repeat of the first, with the last two eighth notes replaced with triplet. The whole pattern consists of 24 notes. I once tried to count how many times it is repeated in a performance of Boléro, but gave up when I got to 100. I think it must be over 200 times.  This figure is introduced first on a single snare drum, which carries on playing it for the duration, i.e. for about 15 minutes in total. As the piece develops the same pattern is picked up by various other instruments, either alone in combination. A second snare drum joins in too. The key to the piece is to keep this all very strictly in tempo, as the piece gradually gets louder.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my Father was a (jazz) drummer. I remember once borrowing his snare drum and attempting to play along with a recording of Boléro. The pattern shown above is not that hard to play in itself, but it’s not as easy as you probably think to keep in tempo as you play it louder and louder. At the start it’s fine: you begin by tapping the sticks on the skin of the drum very close to the rim. To increase the volume you gradually move the point of impact closer to the centre of the drum, which naturally makes it louder. However, to get louder still you have to increase the distance the sticks move, and that makes it tougher to keep to tempo. Playing along at home is one thing, but playing the percussionist playing this in an orchestra must leave the drummer feeling very exposed. One mistake, any speeding up or slowing down, and the whole performance will be ruined.  Percussionists very often have little to do for long passages in an orchestral work, but this takes it to the opposite extreme. It requires constant concentration, but no variation or embellishment is allowed.  I suppose professional musicians just get into the zone and don’t think about the possibility of screwing up. Last night, Principal Percussionist David Hext looked as relaxed as anyone I’ve ever seen starting this piece and seemed even to be enjoying it too, thoroughly deserving the warm applause he got at the end of the performance.

The bolero rhythm is just one element of the composition, of course. There is a melody, in two parts. The first simple and catchy, the second bluesier and a bit syncopated. Each part is played twice, passed around the instruments of the orchestra, first individually and then in combinations. Sometimes the melodic line is doubled, but there are no complicated harmonies and the piece stays in C major throughout, apart from a sudden change of key near the very end. The second part of the melody allows the musicians to release their inner jazz a bit, playing behind or across the beat to generate the feeling that the tune is trying to escape the confines of the incessant rhythm. As is the case in jazz, this sense of tension only works if the basic rhythm is kept strictly in tempo as the crescendo builds

The third element of the composition is the simplest of all, but I feel that it is very important in determining whether a performance of Boléro really rocks. That is a rhythmic pulse based on the three beats of the underlying 3/4. When they’re not playing the melody or shadowing the bolero pattern, the orchestra play this figure and it ends up being boomed out by the timpani in tremendous style but also as the piece progresses the stress shifts between the three beats as different instruments contribute.

I know it’s a familiar piece but I really enjoyed last night’s performance. I’ll also reiterate that as well as making a great sound, a full symphony orchestra playing during a piece like this is a tremendous thing to watch, especially with the percussion section giving it some good old-fashioned welly.

Anyway, after the ensuing wine break interval we resumed with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by that man Maurice Ravel).  I remember studying this in music lessons at school,as it was one of the teacher’s approved works. He never told us, however, that the `pictures’ concerned were not large-scale canvases but tiny drawings and design sketches done by one Victor Hartmann, whose sudden death led to the exhibition in question but also affected his friend Mussorgsky very deeply and inspired him to make a musical tribute based on the artwork displayed therein. Mussorgsky thus wrote the piano version which was then subsequently orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

This is another extremely popular piece, also for good reason. It’s a set of ten movements linked by a `Promenade’ theme that represents the viewer walking around the exhibition (in different moods determined by the pictures). It ends with the most famous section, the magnificent Great Gate of Kiev which provided a suitable finale to a most enjoyable and varied evening of music.

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WNO Khovanshchina

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 24, 2017 by telescoper

So, as promised, yesterday evening I took a stroll down to Cardiff Bay for the opening night of this run of Welsh National Opera’s production of Kovasnshchina. The walk proved a bit more eventful than anticipated because I blundered into the middle of some sort of police operation involving the pursuit of a suspect but I made it to the Wales Millennium Centre on time and relatively unruffled.

Khovanshchina (which roughly translates as `The Khovansky Affair’ or `The Khovansky Episode’) is based on historical events that took place in Moscow in the 1682. Prince Khovansky, at the head of his private army (the Strelsty) leads a rebellion against the government represented by Sofia, who is regent on behalf of her young brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter (destined to become Peter the Great) who has, with assistance from her lover Prince Golitsyn, restricted the power of the the Boyars (aristocracy). These rebels form an uneasy alliance with The Old Believers, who are opposed to religious reforms introduced by the Patriarch Nikon. The rebellion is crushed by Peter’s army. Khovansky is murdered, but the Streltsy, having been lined up to be executed, are spared by the young Tsar. Golitsyn is forced into exile. The Old Believers, on the other hand, convinced that the failure of the uprising means that the devil is taking over the world, opt for mass suicide.

Mussorgsky was inspired to write this Opera by the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great (who was born in 1672). He worked on it, off and on, composing the music and writing the libretto, from 1872 until his death in 1881 and which point it still wasn’t finished. His friend Nikllai Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently completed the work, and it is his version that is most frequently performed. This production, however, uses a different version, completed in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich and with the addition of the final scene – the immolation of the Old Believers – the music for which was composed by Igor Stravinsky. The compositional history of this piece is almost as complex as the historical events it depicts.

At a very basic level the message of Khovanshchina is “look how terrible everything was before Peter the Great”. None of the protagonists is a remotely sympathetic character, especially Khovansky himself who is an extremely unpleasant individual, as is his son, whom we first meet trying to force his attentions on a young German girl. Khovansky Senior arrives on the scene to stop him assaulting the girl, but only because he wants her for himself. They’re all charm, these Khovanskys.

Golitsyn seems at first like a good guy, but when a fortune teller forecasts doom and gloom he casually orders her to be murdered. The Old Believers just seem to be a group of religious maniacs. Peter the Great never actually appears on stage and neither does Sofia, a deliberate ploy to focus our attention on the undesirables in front of us. The story that unfolds is one full of horror and brutality, while hope waits in the wings, perhaps never to arrive.

This particular episode also serves to highlight the themes that recur elsewhere in Russian history, and indeed the history of any country that has a history, namely the conflicts between reason and superstition, between rich and poor, between East and West and, well, between War and Peace…

David Pountney’s design for  this production isn’t specific to the 17th century. The striking set, with its curious juxtaposition of abstract geometrical forms, owes much to the constructivist art that informed the iconography of the early Soviet era. Other elements of the design, such as the costumes of the serfs (grey) and the Old Believers (white), are more traditional. The Streltsy wear uniforms that look 20th century, but are a bright pink. This colour-coding is helpful, actually, given the complexities of the plot, and the fact that the stage is frequently crowded. The final apocalyptic suicide scene is not an immolation, but death by poison gas, administered by a steampunk contraption that descends from above the stage. These, and other devices, shift attention away from the specifics and emphasize the thematic universality of the piece.

Spread over five acts, and lasting about 3½ hours (including one interval), Khovanshchina is quite a long Opera but it doesn’t get bogged down because so much is happening musically, dramatically and visually.  It may not be the most comfortable viewing, but it’s a gripping story compelling realised. I certainly never felt bored, though I do wish I’d read a little more about the story beforehand as I got a bit confused in places.

With the exception of a few iffy moments by the French horns, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus played excceedingly well, adding a sense of danger to the opening prelude that set the tone wonderfully. A special mention must be made of the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were absolutely magnificent, showing off some of the sublime choral writing in this opera as well as provide lots of energy and colour to the crowd scenes.  It isn’t really fair to single out any of the principals, as this is really an ensemble piece, but I thought Robert Hayward was absolutely compelling.

There are two more performances in Cardiff but this piece goes on tour. Do go and see it if you can. It’s an enthralling experience.

 

Dawn over the Moscow River

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 22, 2017 by telescoper

If the world doesn’t come to an end tomorrow, around 7pm I hope to be in my seat at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay for the start of Khovanschina performed by Welsh National Opera, it being the first night of their new season.

Khovanschina, composed by Modest Mussorgsky, is not a particular well-known opera but the lovely Prelude to Act I is performed fairly often as a concert piece with the title Dawn Over the Moscow River. Here it is, played in 1991 by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev:

The Shrinking Seasons at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by telescoper

I was excited to receive the brochure shown above for the 2017/18 season at Welsh National Opera, but although it contains some very exciting things there are also many signs that times are getting very tough at WNO.

This October sees the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution so it’s no surprise that the Autumn season has a distinctive Russian flavour. There’s Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mussorgky’s Khovanschina and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. Yes, I know Janáček wasn’t Russian – but `From the House of the Dead’ is based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was…

That looks like an interesting season, but there are only two performances of From the House of the Dead in Cardiff (both of which I think I’ll have to miss) and only three each of Eugene Onegin and Khovanschina. There’s also an additional performance of Johan Strauss’s light operetta Die Fledermaus, which is one of this year’s productions.

Spring 2018 sees performances of Puccini’s Tosca, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Mozart’s Don Giovanni which again looks like a nice season. I’ve seen the productions of Tosca and Don Giovanni before, but won’t mind seeing them again.

But the real disappointment is that there’s no Summer season at all. Austerity has clearly bitten very hard. For year’s I’ve been celebrating my birthday (which falls in June) by going to a WNO performance in Cardiff but I guess next year I’ll just have to do something else….