Provincial Ecstacy: Mikhail Anticipates Enjoyment (Updated)

As a youngster I used to hate “classical music” partly because it was always around – in fact, this hate was probably carefully cultivated by the Soviet state, if only for the purposes of torturing the masses with a 24-hour broadcasts of orchestral music as a way of mourning the leader’s death. There was a sequence of sudden departures of heads of states after Brezhnev died – all I remember is “classical music” on TV all day… But through what I’ve referred to as “coercion of taste” elsewhere I’ve acquired a rather exciting (if burdensome in the absence of cultural stimulation) addiction to music of such Russian giants as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, and even Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Thus I am very excited – or maybe it’s just caffeine – to see that my provincial orchestra is presenting a following program this afternoon:

Britten (“Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes)

Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring)

Shostakovich (Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor) with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

I know that those of you who are privileged to inhabit the centers of culture will be slightly amused at this very traditional program, but trust me for this provincial town it is way out there in the twentieth century! My only concern is that the orchestra, more accustomed to tunes that put old ladies to sleep, might mess up the Scherzo and thus ruin my enjoyment of the Violin Concerto, thus I am dedicating this morning “study time” to indoctrinating myself with a superior version of BBC Orchestra and Dmitry Sitkovetsky. There isn’t one on YouTube, so here’s a good one as well (the best part of the movement is about 2:45 in the video below):

Shostakovich: The Original Harry Potter!

Update I: The concert turned out to be a good experience despite several major issues: I thought orchestra was a bit lost and messy in the middle of “Four Sea Interludes” – actually precisely where things got technical, but generally there was not major mishaps; Violin Concerto was somewhat disappointing because Niki and I could not hear the violin very well and we had good sits (I thought), so it was still a great piece but I think I mostly supplied the violin part from memory, not from an actual performance; Rite of Spring was executed well, even if somewhat unimaginatively…

Update II: Check out this archival footage of young Dmitri (1934? – 28 year old) playing the end of this First Piano Concerto:

16 thoughts on “Provincial Ecstacy: Mikhail Anticipates Enjoyment (Updated)

  1. I’m just starting to get into Shostakovich, I started with his 2 cello concertos, played by Rostropovich (who I guess they were written for), as I play cello myself. I’m really interested in hearing more of his work.

    We also just found the other day at a thrift store, a record set on 78 rpm records of Rachmaninov playing his 2nd Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, it’s a 1929 recording. I hadn’t heard the piece before, and I love it.

    I’m looking forward to further forays into the world of Russian classical music.

  2. Dave, if you play cello, i think you would appreciate Shostakovich’s famous String Quartets – they are available in a variety of good performances, the most recent one is done by Emerson String Quartet, it’s quite good.

  3. also, to hope they will be able to get ‘Sacre’ powerful enough, but I don’t know what your ‘province’ is. Is that a Soviet secret? I’m finding myself more and more attracted to weird Sovietisms, and was lambasted by all the Europeans and Americans for going nuts over the stunning Galina Mezentseva, of the Kirov Ballet–but the Russians themselves adore her, and are not worried if she gets too mannered. Having delimited Sovietism seems to render it an aura after awhile, as with other things that just seemed kitschy when they were new; not all of it, of course, but some of it is like that, and has made me want to go to Moscow, but I can’t. My publisher/collaborator told me I wouldn’t like it, that it is ‘not very much like Los Angeles.’

    I’m getting interested in more Russian music too, having really only fully grasped Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, some glinka and Glazounov and some Shostakovitch, would never really exhaustive. You must know ‘Pique Dame’. I don’t know the Tchaikovsky operas, but have planned to listen to the Kirov/Gergiev DVD this afternoon or everning. Have you any thoughts here? I’ll hear Gergiev conduct for the Kirov Ballet here in April, the Stravinsky for Rubies, Diana Vishneva dancing, I can’t remember the other two works, Recently heard him conduct Tarkovsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, but the VHS sound quality on that is not good, you can barely hear the orchestra on that. Would be interested in further recommendations of Russian opera from you as I finally get started on some of this.

  4. Tarkovsky’s production of Boris Godunov is available on DVD, it’s worth getting if you are into Tarkovsky’s films – I have a different production of BG and it is a rather stark contrast. “Pique Dame” is a rather popular opera in Russia but I don’t see it produced much in the States – however, if you want to see a great production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, The Met’s last year production with Hvorostovsky and Fleming came out on DVD recently – I’m sure you can see some clips of it on YouTube.

    Russian opera does not have a very long history – probably starting with Glinka which is not nearly as long of a history as Italian opera. If you want to see a great contemporary work though, I would recommend Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – it has everything Shostakovich has to offer musically and narrative-wise it is an emotionally charged story. For something between Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky I would go for Prokofiev’s amazing ‘War and Piece‘ – it’s long and detailed, but if you have time and patience it is full of great musical material – it is being produced in the US once in a while and I think there are several productions on DVD.

    There’s a nice opera by Alfred Schnittke – Historia von D. Johann Fausten – but it’s in German and I don’t think there is a DVD of it, I only have a CD.

  5. Yes, some of these will definitely interest me, esp. the Prokofiev, and will also try the Macbeth. There are several DVD’s more easily available already, from the Bolshoi, etc. Heard Hvorostowsky with NYPhil in 2002–damn, it it doesn’t work on a lot of levels.


  6. Oh, yes, I’ve been wanting to get a recording of Shostakovich’s string quartets, I was debating between the Emerson quartet and the Borodin quartet – I’ve heard that the Emerson quartet performance is very good technically, but a bit lacking in feeling.

    I’m also quite interested in Shostakovich’s life in general, as well as that of Mstislav Rostropovich – I’m assuming they had some interaction, both musically and personally, as they both offered a sort of musical resistance to the soviet dampers on art and culture. I’m particularly interested in Shostakovich, as he decided to stay in the Soviet Union, when many of his contemporary composers chose to leave (such as Rachmaninov and Prokofiev), and to somewhat tailor his behavior so as to not be exiled (as Rostropovich was), while still presenting some opposition.

  7. (in case anyone is interested)

    looks like the Borodin Quartet have done two recordings of the quartets, one of the full set, and one of only 1-13. the one of the full set may be out of print, or not available in the US, as I’m having a hard time finding one to buy, though the set of 1-13 seems to be readily available for around $30, which seems not too bad.

    looking up some reviews, they look pretty mixed between the Emerson and Borodin quartets, with a lot of people going both ways in terms of recommendations as the best performance.

    i tend to lean towards the Borodin quartet, since they actually worked with Shostakovich on them…

    if only I could find the full set.

  8. There’s an excellent recording by The Shostakovich Quartet done in the 1970s (but it’s hard to find, none on Amazon as far as I can tell), as well as some quartets done by the later Borodin Quartet in 1990 which is a nice double CD (this one). Beethoven Quartet did some recordings of first several quartets and last three, I think, since Quartets are rather varied, one does not necessarily need to have a Box Set done by the same group – I have a Borodin Quartet recording (early line-up) and, even though they did work with Shostakovich himself, I would not put them above all others – it’s music which, once the composer was done composing is up to performance to take and interpret – “the author is dead” applies to music as well as books…

    If you want more information about the different recordings and their descriptions, check out this DSCH Journal page

  9. Hmm… it seems that eMusic has both the original Borodin recording or quartets 1-13, and the Eder Quartet recording of all 15 which is talked about on that DSCH Journal Page. Maybe that would make a good combination. I’ll try some of those for now, and we’ll see from there 🙂

  10. I loved the ‘Pique Dame’ from 1992–lavish! Surely you know it, do you like it? All glorious sound and production except the Prince, sung by Alexander Gergalev, who had some hard, ugly notes I didn’t hear elsewhere. interesting to finally see a Tchaikovsky opera, and the court scenes are often reminiscent of parts of the ballets, as with Cupid, Hymen and shepherds/shepherdesses, and the gilded male dancer, some of this is like the Garland Waltz in ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Also the final scene at the gaming tables is like his big ceremonial music in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

    Can’t wait to hear Gergiev with Kirov Ballet, although I really think City Center should have been torn down if they weren’t going to fix that atrociously raked auditorium where you spend all your time craning your neck to see. If not Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, they get City Center, and it is just so inferior. They put ABT fall program there, Martha Graham Co. when they did a NY season, all the Encores! B’way things, and now the Kirov’s New York season. It’s because of the Met Opera schedule, of course, and then ABT always goes to the Met in Spring/Summer, but Kirov needs it. This hall is just repulsive and makes no sense. Ballet Talk people were discussing the always poor orchestras for ABT and very inconsistent conducting for NYCB, which is only occasionally good and not too prestissimo–they play ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ like it’s for Mighty Mouse cartoons: Because all the great Europen Ballet Orchestras are all the opera orchestras too, Royal Ballet, POB, Kirov, Vienna, and you get great orchestra at the Met, but not at NYCB. Which may be why Gergiev conducted there once in late 2006, I believe ‘Firebird’ was on his program. The people who complained about how he was ‘too fast for dancers’ shut up after they heard him, I’m not sure quite why, because it it’s too fast it really doesn’t matter how great a ballet conductor is. I imagine they were talking about recordings, in which case it’s only the music. Balletomanes are quite opinionated but often ignorant about music, and they endlessly discuss ‘musicality’ in dancers, which is crucial, but then they do shit like talk about how the NYCB orchestra is never good, and when I tell them that they have convinced me never to go again, they are then shocked that they have proved that with shitty music I am not interested in seeing how little Tyler Angle’s jumps have ‘grown.’

    Anyway, I’ve decided to listen to about 40 recordings by Gergiev which are easily available–marvelous sound and Tchaikovsky is a fucking genius as ever.

  11. Tchaikovsky has a way with melody, I think, and despite all of my resistance to this ‘easy kick’ of a beautiful tune, I enjoy him very much – if you have heard his symphonies they are quite a treat as well, especially 4th, 5th and 6th, these are the earliest pieces I remember listening to as a music student – now I think I find it somewhat embarrassing just how much I remember them – must resist, must listen only to “cool” and “contemporary” music…

    I have that 1992 DVD – I haven’t seen it in a while – I’m presently on a strange Monteverdi kick, but maybe I’ll take a look at it again this week.

  12. Well, I got the 14th and 15th quartets, played by the Eder quartet –

    they’re definitely very different quartets, but I really enjoy both of them on first listen. I think I would really enjoy playing the 15th.

    The interplay of the instruments is really interesting in the 14th quartet, it seems almost like a conversation, and the adagio movement is beautiful.

    I really like the first movement of the 15th quartet – the slowness and sparsity of it are really nice to me (I’ve been really enjoying sparse music lately, from Arvo Part to Henryk Gorecki to Radiohead’s new album)

    I have a feeling I’m going to spend quite a bit of time listening to these to understand them better, they seem like they have a lot to say.

  13. Mikhail–I listgened to this 1978 Bolshoi DVD of BG last night. Not as many great voices, but Federenko was impressive vocally and in physical presence as Boris. Was interested in the difference in the Kirov/Tarkovsky sets and costumes–these were much heavier and I thought were more set on recreating the period; I liked them as well, but for different reasons. More opulent, but not quite as tasty. Is this the one you have? At least I could hear the music better on the DVD than on the VHS, but Bolshoi Opera may also have a lesser reputation than the Bolshoi Ballet tends to than Kirov (I hadn’t even known this till recently, that Kirov is more Gold Standard.)

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