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Parlor Music in Russia

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Aug 18th, 2018

From left: Michael Hofmann, Zachary Schwartzman, Gerard Schneider, Mikhail Svetlov, and The Orchestra Now 

Program Eight of Bard College’s annual Summerscape Festival focused around Rimsky-Korsakov this year offered a sample menu of various popular parlor room pieces before the creation of the Moscow Conservatory and the St. Petersburg Conservatory by the Rubenstein brothers. Danny Driver and Anna Polonsky opened with an undated Scherzo by Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife Nadezhda. As with most Russian four-hand piano pieces, this was an unexpected delight. There was a buoyancy and optimism to the piece that was refreshing. The piece provided an opportunity to showcase Nikolai’s great secret asset—the person who perhaps influenced him the most. Driver and Polonsky communicated the infectious fun of this four-hand delight.

Among outstanding samples offered was Prince Galitsky’s Aria from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor sung with charming gusto by bass Mikhail Svetlov, who played the peasant who dreamed of being a just Prince drinking vats of wine and debauching all the blondes in the kingdom (“Boredom I hate”). The arrangement highlighted lyricism in voice while the piano played background or counterpoint. Danny Driver played three César Cui (who had launched a campaign against Rimsky-Korsakov for not being sufficiently nationalist in 1898) selections from 25 Preludes, Op. 64 (1903), nos. 1, 9, and 21. I was much taken by number 9 with its slow, meditative, poetic lyricism, such as one discovers in Scriabin’s early Preludes or earlier in John Field’s Nocturnes. While this smattering of pleasant selections, which included Igor Stravinsky’s Scherzo, from Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor (1904) played by Danny Driver, and a few minor charming quartet dances (the Lyadov Polka featured an unusually strong and attractive viola lead) played by current members of the Daedelus Quartet, provided stimulation, there was no major Wow moment. That was reserved for after intermission.

I have met countless Americans who have loved the film Amadeus and many who enjoyed Peter Schaffer’s 1979 Amadeus play (I saw a marvelous production in Dublin at the old Gate Theatre that same year), yet hardly any knew of Pushkin’s 1832 short closet drama Mozart, which Rimsky-Korsakov turned into Mozart and Salieri (1897) and first performed with piano at Rimsky-Korsakov’s home on November 5. Rimsky-Korsakov called it a recitative. Yes, it is that, and it brims to near-overflowing with Pushkin’s impish, droll humor and sublime ironic wit, sparkling with an improvisational aura. Everyone at the first home performance was so enthusiastic about the recitative, and the actors (Fyodor Shalyapin as Salieri and Vasiliy Shkafer as Mozart) agreed to repeat it again after quaffing their hearty thirst.

Although the raucous applause in Olin Hall demanded two long bows and the two actors, bass Mikhail Svetlov in the lead role as the scheming and rationalizing Salieri with tenor Gerard Schneider as the insouciant and haunted Mozart, glowed with triumphant accomplishment in their bows, we were not in nineteenth century Russia and everyone was on a conference schedule that precluded a repeat performance. This recitative is the very apex of salon entertainment. Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition in the improvisational style of Mozart operated as the double intensifier of the characters, as well as the airy wit of the libretto. Michael Hofmann deftly directed the players and Zachary Schwartzman confidently conducted the TŌN, which so crowded the stage that it was impossible to add another musician.

P.S. Bard’s annual volume on the Summerscape composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, edited by Marina Frolova-Walker offers an usually superb collection of essays.