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Russian Music before and after the Mighty Five

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Aug 12th, 2018

From left:Daniel Chong, Danny Driver,  Jessica Bodner, Kee-Hyun Kim , Jordan Frazier, Ken Hamao 

Above floats the title of Program Two of Bard College’s Summerscape Festival devoted this year to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). The pre-concert talk by Byron Adams from the University of California at Riverside was brilliant, witty, and wonderful—concise anecdotes, amusing observations, and incisive provocations delivered with panache.

Mezzo-soprano Mankia Krajewska who recently emigrated from Poland and has frequently performed at Carnegie Hall sang with dramatic force two Romantic songs by Rimsky-Korsakov as she was ably accompanied by Yelena Kurdina on piano.

Mikhail Glinka’s Grand Sextet (1832) was then performed by the Parker Quartet with Danny Driver on piano and Jordan Frazier on double bass. Glinka became a latter inspiration for Rimsky-Korsakov due to his more widely European approach to music (he had been educated in Italy) rather than the patriotic nationalism which was the mainstream of Russian music. This sextet was more like a piano concerto that the conversational modality of instrumentation that one expects from a sextet. Danny Driver, attired in a nouveau domino shirt, dominated the other instruments with his higher register in the first two movements and lower register in the last two with spectacular cadenza runs in typical Russian effusion.  Kee-Hyun Kim on cello effectively projected a more genial and civilized tone to challenge the piano’s heady exuberance.

The Parker Quartet performed Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 (1881). While this was attractively rich in melody and length, it favored “repetition and transformation over development,” as Byron Adams has written. Nonetheless, it was exciting and first violinist Daniel Chong excelled throughout the four movements (which were really five). Ken Hamao on second violin and Jessica Bodner on viola came into their own on the sensitive slow second movement Andante and the fiery concluding Finale. Kee-Hyun Kim on cello provided articulate eloquence throughout.

Danny Driver then appeared to play Fugue in G minor (1875-6) by Rimsky-Korsakov. When Rimsky-Korsakov was appointed head of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he decided he needed to brush up on counterpoint, so in the summer of 1875 he composed 64 fugues and sent 10 of them for reformation to his brightest pupil, Tchaikovsky, who took this caprice seriously and improved those assigned. This appeared to be in the program because: 1) it was a stellar example of how far Rimsky-Korsakov’s latter work had progressed 2) Byron Adams and Danny Driver had decided to improve the piece by adding e minor note—this was a rather silly joke 3) it was a good example of why most composers avoid parallel fifths 4) it offered foil contrast to the 1871 Tchaikovsky string quartet that would close the concert. The piece was so bad that Driver grimaced at one point. Point made. It is a pity that this unpublished scrap survived the torments of history.

Piers Lane then emerged to tackle Mily Balakirev’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor (1900). This extravagant parody of Chopin featured excessive, gratuitous cadenzas. Like Tchaikovsky, Balakirev had a gift for melody and even drama, but lacked the discipline to restrain his bombastic and fitful genius.

Krajewska took the stage to sing three more songs with lyrics by Timofeyev, Pushkin, and Béranger: the first two sounded more polished and sophisticated than the previous lieder and concluded with comic relief from the pangs of romance with a ballad about an old corporal.

The Parker Quartet performed Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 (written at the age of 31). Here was marvelous melody and heavenly harmony with satisfactory form. Chong on violin was glowing in this work. The second movement Andante cantabile (along with the Finale) is everyone’s favorite: a snatch of peasant doggerel folksong that Tchaikovsky twirls, elevates, and mutates into such mellow gentility that even the men swoon. For the Finale everyone was playing in unison and in top form, which lent a triumphant air to this peculiar Petronius-like banquet. It may be true that Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov are under-rated in the West, but it remains hard to over-rate the glorious Tchaikovsky.

The general conclusion was that Russian music was better off both before and after the Mighty Five let out their mighty nationalist roar.