The First Week of the Concert Season. Mme Patti's Concerts

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The First Week of the Concert Season. Mme Patti's Concerts (Первая неделя концертного сезона. Концерты г-жи Патти) [1] (TH 303 ; ČW 568) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-eighth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 12 March 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains an interesting discusses of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze, "a wonderful work of genius" according to Tchaikovsky, who takes up the well-known contrast it is meant to illustrate between the two sides of Schumann's personality; observations on Nikolay Rubinstein's piano playing; a very critical review of Carlotta Patti as an Olympia-like wax doll (Tchaikovsky does not seem to have been aware of her unfortunate physical disability), who could in no way be compared to her famous younger sister Adelina; and a profound lament for the death of Ferdinand Laub, a violinist whom Tchaikovsky had always admired greatly.

History

Completed by 12/24 March 1875 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reviewed two concerts:

  • An "Extraordinary symphony concert by the Russian Musical Society: (N. G. Rubinstein's concert)" in Moscow on 4/16 March 1875, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Beethoven's Corolian overture, Op. 62, Ratmir's aria from Act III of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila (contralto Aleksandra Svyatlovskaya), and N. Rubinstein himself playing Schumann's Davidsbündler, Op. 6, and Toccata, Op. 7, John Field's Piano Concerto No. 2 in A-flat major, Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, a Fugue in E minor by Handel, Haydn's Variations in F minor, the Lied ohne Worte in F major by Mendelssohn, and Schubert's Military March, Op. 51/1 (arranged by Carl Tausig);
  • The "Third Concert by Mme Carlotta Patti, with the participation of Messrs Camillo Sivori, Theodor Ritter, and the orchestra of the Imperial Theatres, conducted by Enrico Bevignani" at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 9/21 March 1875, during which Adelina Patti's elder sister sang, amongst other things, an aria from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

English translation

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English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist.
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The First Week of the Concert Season

This year's concert season opened with a symphony concert by the Russian Musical Society on behalf of its director and conductor N. G. Rubinstein. The programme consisted of Beethoven's Corolian overture, some arias from Ruslan and Lyudmila, and twenty-four variously long and short piano pieces, played for us by the beneficiary of the concert himself! What strength and, in particular, memory it must take to be able to perform without once faltering this veritable ocean of chords, passages, melodies, scales, and trills, especially if we also bear in mind that Mr Rubinstein, burdened as he is by lots of obligations and complicated administrative issues at the Conservatory, does not really have much time in which to rehearse his concert repertoire!

The principal work on Mr Rubinstein's programme was a series of eighteen pieces by Schumann which were published under the general title: "Die Davidsbündler: 18 Characterstücke für das Pianoforte", Op. 6. I would like to dwell for a while on this outstanding work by the great symphonist [2]. Under the designation "Davidsbündler" Schumann, as he himself confessed, had in mind "a league that was more than secret, for it existed only in the head of its founder", a league whose purpose it was "to slay the Philistines, musical and otherwise", that is to carry out a vigorous and unwearying struggle against the men of stagnation and routine, the inveterate enemies of everything that is new, fresh, and deviates from the established, quite often antiquated forms [3].

In the two leading and most characteristic figures of this 'League of David'—Florestan and EusebiusSchumann personified the two principal aspects of his spiritual individuality. Florestan was meant to stand for passionate energy, boldness, and bellicosity; Eusebius, on the other hand, was soft, gentle, and an eternal dreamer. The other members of the League were: Master Raro (a pseudonym for Friedrich Wieck, the father of Schumann's famous wife Clara), Serpentinus (the composer and critic Carl Banck), Jonathan (the pianist and composer Christian Ludwig Schunke), Eleonore ( Schumann's friend Henriette Voigt), and so on.

In the sequence of pieces I am referring to here, only the two leading figures of this League appear by turns, though sometimes both of them together. In other words, the cycle expresses the creative spirit of Schumann himself—stormy, impetuous, passionate, and resolute in the pieces marked with the letter "F" (i.e. those which depict Florestan), and languorous and melancholically tender in those marked with the letter "E" (i.e. the ones which feature the dreamy Eusebius).

The first piece is based on a theme by Clara Schumann. The opposed fictive personalities of Florestan and Eusebius do not yet come to the fore in it, and its mood is solemnly serene, displaying at the end a harmony of such majestic breadth as only Schubert and Beethoven otherwise were capable of weaving within so narrow a framework. The second piece reflects the impression produced by the preceding fragment on Eusebius's melancholic soul. That is immediately followed by an impetuous episode depicting Florestan's mood, leading then to a lively dialogue as it were in which we invariably hear the contrast between these two opposing elements in Schumann's oeuvre. Subsequently, Florestan and Eusebius seem to merge in a single feeling of love and happiness, although it is Eusebius who gets to have the last word, and this wonderful fantasy, so full of capricious swings of true genius, ends with a section in which it is difficult to say what one should be more astonished by—its melodic charm or its incredible richness in wondrous harmonic combinations?

It is a great pity that after the last number of Schumann's fantasy Mr Rubinstein, without pausing even for a few seconds, started playing straight away the same composer's Toccata, which acted like a glass of cold water thrown on those of us who had been absorbed in the sweet dreams awakened by the preceding music. Toccata, if one were to translate it into Russian literally, does after all imply a "striking" or "rapping" of the piano keys. Well, this "rapping" was certainly written by Schumann in a very poignant, interesting manner that poses a lot of technical difficulties for the performer, and Mr Rubinstein played it with the requisite precision and punch. Nevertheless, the fact that he embarked on this piece immediately after the final chord of the Davidsbündler fantasy does more credit to his indefatigable stamina than to his taste.

Mr Rubinstein also sinned against good taste by his choice of Field's concerto. The archaic character of this music just does not tally with Mr Rubinstein's artistic individuality, in which the Florestan element predominates over all the others. A more unimaginative and empty music than that we find in Field's piano concertos can scarcely be imagined. It is an endless series of little scales, trills, 'Doppelschlags' [rapid turns], and suchlike virtuoso tittle-tattle, none of which is used in a way that might somehow appear to be motivated. One cannot deny that the piano in Field's works sounds pretty, but pretty in the sense of a musical box in which the metallic sound of the high little notes that follow on from one another in quick succession has a captivating effect on the ear, quite independently of the music as such.

Mr Rubinstein is one of the foremost contemporary pianists. Unfortunately, he gives just one recital every year, but this does mean that we are entitled to expect from him something more interesting—something that would be worthier of his outstanding technique and the remarkable poetic feeling of his interpretations. Amongst the other pieces performed by Mr Rubinstein, I would also like to single out Tausig's [4] brilliant arrangement of Schubert's Military March, which he played for us with a remarkable virtuoso lustre.

As for his account of the Davidsbündler, Mr Rubinstein's playing was beyond all praise, and it is only to be regretted that, as we discussed above, he moved on straight away to the Toccata, thereby unfortunately destroying the ineffably strong impression which he had just produced with his splendid interpretation of that work of genius by Schumann, which is so rarely performed.

There was also a singer taking part in Mr Rubinstein's concert: Mme Svyatlovskaya [5], a student at the Conservatory, where she is currently studying in Mme Aleksandrova's class. This young artiste performed for us Ratmir's aria "Chudnyi son" ["Wondrous dream"] from Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila. Mme Svyatlovskaya's voice is quite strong, fresh, and beautiful. Her phrasing shows great taste, and she sings with a clean intonation and faithfully to the score, although in the Allegro she did not keep to the rhythm closely enough. She had a great success.

Mme Patti's Concerts

I was only able to attend the third concert given by Mme Carlotta Patti [6] and Messrs Sivori [7] and Ritter [8]. On the pages of this newspaper several judgements have already been pronounced on these artists which were in fact based on a vague overall impression on the part of the audience that attended the first two concerts, echoes of which had reached the newspaper's editor's office. Of these judgements, I consider the one that was made about the pianist Herr Ritter to be quite unfair. For he made a highly favourable impression on me. Herr Ritter belongs firmly and squarely to those pianists whose playing is distinguished above all by a quality which I can only describe as "elegance".

The impression his playing makes is rather like a refined and delicate conversation in a salon; it exudes an aroma of fragrances, and you can almost sense in it the rustling of silk dresses and heels being clicked softly and elegantly. Unbridled passion and thrilling poetry—that you will not find in his playing, but what the latter does have to offer is fine taste, intelligent calculation, and a sense of measure.

Herr Ritter is most definitely a fine performing artist who deserves every possible encouragement. As a composer, however, he is beneath even the level of mediocrity: the works by himself which he performed together with Mme Patti (who sang his waltz song La festa) are no more than a shameless compilation of platitudes, devoid of any content whatsoever.

When Mme Carlotta Patti went out onto the podium, resplendent in her beautiful tunic and costly jewels, with a stylised coiffure that almost seemed to have been cast in bronze, and the glaring flush of her cheeks set off against the artificial whiteness of her face; when she stood there, quite literally transfixed to the spot, and I in my turn fixed on her my opera-glass, it was as if I was looking at one of those wax figures which adorn the shop-windows of hairdressers on Kuznetsky Bridge or Petrovka Street. And by the time this lifelessly pretty waxen lady began to sing an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, I was still assiduously trying to pick out in her any signs of human life and feeling.

Her voice must have been fitted into her throat by some skilful master; likewise, the movements of her head can only be the result of some ingeniously invented mechanism. Yes, we all marvel at the art and skill of these masters, but inwardly we say to ourselves that no matter how far mechanics and all kinds of applied sciences may progress in the future, it will still be the case that talking and even singing dolls can only ever be a parody of real people, that no master, even if he were the wisest of men, will ever manage to invest his waxen or wooden creation with life and feeling. Comparing Mme Carlotta Patti with her sister Adelina is quite out of the question. Some people says that Adelina sings not like a woman, but like a little bird. That may well be so. In that case one could also say that Mme Carlotta Patti sings like a little bird, too—a bird, however, which has been bought in a toyshop, and not one which flies about freely, builds a little nest for itself, and basks in the rays of the sun.

Signor Sivori is a walking anachronism. The earnestness with which he pulls off his little tricks, the calm and naïve placidity which suffuses the expression on his face whilst his violin is producing now barely audible and wailing laments, now harsh tones which grate upon the ears—all this is enough to disarm even the most ill-intentioned critic.

While listening to him, I could not help thinking about how exactly one year ago, on that very same podium, another violinist was giving his last concert [9], albeit in front of an almost empty auditorium—a violinist who was then full of life and vigour, and whose talent of genius was in its full prime. I reflected on how this violinist will never again appear before a human audience, on how none of us will ever quiver with enthusiasm again at his playing, which was able to call forth those profoundly moving tones that were so strong and mighty, and yet at the same time so gentle and caressing.

F. Laub died when he was just 43.

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Musical Chronicle (The First Week of the Concert Season—Concerts of Ms. Patti)' in ČW.
  2. It is interesting that Tchaikovsky calls Schumann a "great symphonist" here because in TH 297 he had emphasized that Schumann's natural medium was the piano rather than the symphony orchestra — translator's note.
  3. In the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev—this whole last section of the paragraph was put into quotation marks, but Ernst Kuhn, in the German edition of these articles—P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000)—has identified which parts are quoted directly from Schumann's writings, and which are paraphrases by Tchaikovsky — translator's note.
  4. Carl Tausig (1841–1871), Polish pianist and composer, studied with Lisztnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Aleksandra Svyatlovskaya (1855–1923), Russian mezzo-soprano and contralto, soloist at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre from 1875 to 1887; later engagements in Germany and (in the 1890s) in London; at the turn of the century she also appeared as an oratorio and lieder singer; in 1904 she set up her own private opera company in Moscow; she corresponded with many leading Russian composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Grechaninov, etc.) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. Carlotta Patti (1840–1889), Italian concert singer, sister of the renowned Adelina Patti; she was judged by some to be as good as her sister in terms of the beauty, scope, and virtuosity of her voice (e.g. she sang the Queen of the Night's arias in Die Zauberflöteup a tone), but was forced by her lameness to make a concert career — note by Ernst Kuhn (supplemented by The Oxford Dictionary of Opera).
  7. Ernesto Camillo Sivori (1815–1894), famous Italian violin virtuoso and composer, from the 1840s he was for some three decades one of the most renowned virtuosi in Europe — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Theodor Ritter (1841–1886), German pianist and composer — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. See TH 288 for a review of this concert, during which the eminent Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), shortly before his departure from Moscow for reasons of ill-health, played his own (now lost) Violin Concerto.