The Russians Are Coming

Classic Arts Features   The Russians Are Coming
Lincoln Center's Great Performers series celebrates Tchaikovsky next month with Vladimir Jurowski and the Russian National Orchestra.

Three orchestral concerts on Lincoln Center's Great Performers series devoted to Tchaikovsky might be expected to include several or even all of his six symphonies, yet not a single one is slated for the Russian National Orchestra's Winter Dreams: The Music of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in early March. "That's the thought behind it," says Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra's principal guest conductor. "We want to show in a short festival different facets of one of the late 19th century's musical giants‹not only in Russia but in the world."

The orchestra's programming represents yet another sign of the upward reevaluation of a composer who for decades was beloved by the general public yet held to be cheap, overindulgent, and sentimental by the musical intelligentsia.

More recently, Tchaikovsky detractors have been holding their peace in ever-greater numbers as his music is appreciated less for its spontaneous outpouring of emotion and more for its great intrinsic quality achieved through scrupulous structural planning.

The Great Performers concerts will explore, respectively, Tchaikovsky and the West (March 5), Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare (March 6), and Tchaikovsky's impact on later music, in particular that of Stravinsky (March 8). "Russianness" characterizes Tchaikovsky's music. But, perhaps in part because of his status as Russia's first truly professionally trained composer, he placed himself within a larger framework that embraced the West.

"Tchaikovsky was as much a Western composer as a Russian one," Jurowski asserts. Two works have been selected that play up the Western ties, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23‹performed by Yefim Bronfman‹and the Manfred Symphony in B minor, Op. 58. "As a Russian artist, Tchaikovsky supplies a link between the classicism of Pushkin and Glinka and the intellectualism and clarity of Stravinsky," says Jurowski. "But of course he was a great Romantic, too. He adored Schumann, and the First Piano Concerto really originates with the Schumann Piano Concerto." Each puts bold dramatic gestures alongside reflective poetic details, and Tchaikovsky also borrowed a page from Schumann's inventive use of syncopation.

Program music was an ideal of Western Romanticism, and the Manfred Symphony ranks as Tchaikovsky's largest-scale example of the genre. Based on Lord Byron's dramatic poem Manfred, it "could have been written by Berlioz or Liszt," says Jurowski. Indeed, the brief program for it was written by Vladimir Stasov, a journalist and alter ego to Russian composers, under the influence of Berlioz's Byron-based Herald in Italy. Its four movements vividly portray nature through sound‹the Alps, a rainbow over a waterfall, hunters and mountain dwellers, a subterranean palace. The work's less than total success helped confirm Tchaikovsky's realization that, as Jurowski puts it, "his was not the way of program music." Yet Jurowski notes that in its instrumental colors Manfred points the way toward such later works as The Sleeping Beauty, the Sixth Symphony, and The Queen of Spades.

Tchaikovsky's three orchestral works inspired by Shakespeare also count as program music, yet they can just as well be thought of as non-operatic examples of Tchaikovsky the theater composer. "They trace Tchaikovsky's artistic development from the early Romeo and Juliet to the already mature master of The Tempest and finally to the last years with Hamlet," Jurowski says. The earliest is also the best known, the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. For that work, Tchaikovsky focused principally on two aspects of the play: the interfamily feud dividing the city of Verona and the love of Romeo and Juliet.

By contrast, The Tempest, a symphonic fantasia, Op. 18, is more loosely structured as it surveys Prospero's preparation for the storm, the storm itself, the appearance of the magic island, the love of Miranda and Ferdinand interrupted by Ariel and Caliban, and Prospero's renunciation, all framed by undulating music evoking the sea. For the Hamlet fantasy overture, Op. 67 (1888), Tchaikovsky returned to the drama of sonata form, yet touched on a number of the play's characters‹Ophelia, Fortenbras, the ghost, Hamlet himself. "Of course, there is much more Tchaikovsky than Shakespeare in these works," says Jurowski. "They show a Romantic, rather gloomy side of Shakespeare, yet they capture the Shakespearean spirit as seen by Tchaikovsky." A novelty on Jurowski's program is the unfinished duet (completed by Sergey Taneyev) for an opera based on Romeo and Juliet using material from the fantasy overture.

Tchaikovsky is rarely thought of as a composer who exerted influence on the 20th century, yet Stravinsky turned to his older compatriot in the 1920s at a crucial artistic stage. As Richard Taruskin has observed, "it was not the 'tragic symphonist' that attracted Stravinsky, but the arbiter of the only classicism Russian music had ever known." Tchaikovsky's vein of classicism runs especially rich in his four unjustly neglected orchestral suites, all written in a period (1878-87) between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. With his suites Tchaikovsky looks back to the late Baroque suite, yet in the great set of variations that conclude the Third Suite his formal experiments, Jurowski believes, prepares the way for neo-classicism.

For Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes production of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty in 1921, Stravinsky orchestrated two numbers‹Variation d'Aurore and Entr'acte symphonique‹that were missing from the only orchestral score at their disposal, which came from the Mariinsky Theater, where those numbers were cut; in 1941 he orchestrated another number, Bluebird Pas-de-deux. But Stravinsky's great homage to Tchaikovsky‹and especially The Sleeping Beauty‹is the ballet Le baiser de la fée (1928), which he dedicated to Tchaikovsky as "a great artist." Based on a selection of Tchaikovsky's songs and piano pieces, Le baiser de la fée has puzzled Stravinsky devotees, who long felt obligated to claim an improvement in Tchaikovsky's music wrought by the later composer's hand. La baiser is often seen as doing for Tchaikovsky what Pulcinella did for Pergolesi, but Stravinsky reworked Tchaikovsky's material in more subtle, personal ways, with a result that is more sincere than ironic. Stravinsky aficionados may once have sniffed at its Tchaikovsky content, but the time is now ripe to appreciate La baiser de la fée for the gently captivating work that it is.

George Loomis writes frequently about the arts.

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