The Fourth Week of Concerts

The Fourth Week of Concerts (Четвертая неделя концертов) (TH 288 ; ČW 553) was Tchaikovsky's twenty-third music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 20 March 1874 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

It contains an enthusiastic tribute to the musicianship of Hans von Bülow, the future first performer and dedicatee of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1; some veiled critical remarks about Bach, a composer of whom Tchaikovsky was not overly fond; detailed and sympathetic discussions of Karl Goldmark's Sakuntala overture and a (now lost) violin concerto by Ferdinand Laub; critical observations about Bortnyansky's "sickly-sweet" harmonic treatment of the Russian Orthodox liturgical chants; and a remarkable discussion of Schubert's Great C major Symphony whose "unique magic" Tchaikovsky praises to the skies

History

Completed by 14/26 March 1874 (date of publication). Concerning two events:

  • A "Grand Concert by Mr Hans von Bülow" in the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 13/25 March 1874, in which the great German pianist played Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fuguein D minor (BWV 903), an unspecified sonata in E-flat major by Beethoven, Chopin's Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57, an unspecified work by Joseph Rheinberger, two Études and a Mazurka by Liszt;
  • The ninth Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow on 15/27 March 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Karl Goldmark's Sakuntala overture, Op. 13 (1865), Ferdinand Laub's Violin Concerto (with the author as soloist), Dmitry Bortnyansky's Sacred Concerto for Chorus No. 32 "O Lord, make me to know my end", and Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C major, D.944 ("Great").

English translation

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Ten years ago, Saint Petersburg and Moscow had the opportunity to appreciate the dazzling virtuosity of a pianist whose name was then only just starting to resound throughout Europe. For in 1864, the two aforesaid capitals were treated to a series of concerts by Hans von Bülow, Doctor of Philosophy (as was printed on the billboards at the time), the husband of Liszt's only daughter, one of the leading lights in the vanguard of the German school of music, and an enthusiastic admirer of, and propagandist for, Wagner's music. This remarkable virtuoso's appearance in Russia was not at the time etched in golden letters in the annals of our concert life. True, Mr Bülow's magnificent playing was valued according to merit by professional musicians and by that small proportion of the public who take a lively interest in any notable event which takes place in the world of art. But the majority of the public treated this artist with an indifference that bordered very closely on cold contempt. The concert-halls in which Mr Bülow performed were half-empty, and if he did not have to endure any significant financial loss, then this was solely because he had been invited to Russia by the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society, which underwrote a guarantee covering both this artist's travel expenses and ensuring that he would receive a stipulated fee.

Since then the reputation of Hans von Bülow as a splendid pianist with a colossal technique, astonishing musical memory, and a flair for gracefully expressive interpretations, has consolidated itself on the surest foundations. The name of Mr Bülow has become so popular that this time he had every reason to expect a much more active and hearty welcome than that which he received ten years ago. These expectations have been fulfilled in the most spectacular way. His concerts in Saint Petersburg attracted huge crowds and were accompanied by stormy ovations in honour of this outstanding artist. In Moscow Mr Bülow has so far given just once concert—in the Bolshoi Theatre, which was packed to the rafters and became the scene of yet another triumphant success for him.

Like A. G. Rubinstein [1], Mr Bülow played on his own, without the participation of other artists or an orchestra. His programme flaunted such names as Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and others. All the works performed by Mr Bülow were played with equal mastery, tastefulness, and a striking ability to convey objectively the spirit and mood of each piece. Without going into a detailed comparison of Mr Bülow's playing and that of the Rubinstein brothers, I shall try to give a brief characterization of his artistic personality. Above all the listener is struck by Mr Bülow's incredibly well-developed technique. The clarity of his playing is unconditional, faultless, and absolute. In vain will even the most malicious caviller search in Mr Bülow's playing for a single wrong note, a scale with one or two steps missed out, a chord struck with an awkward leap of the hand. He has hands endowed with the elasticity of rubber, the strength of steel, the lightness of air, and, where necessary, the heaviness of granite. In short, Mr Bülow more than satisfies all the physical requirements of powerful virtuosity.

As for the artistic quality of his interpretation, it is distinguished by calm objectivity, a fine elaboration of even the smallest details, and a gift for nuance which is as elegant as it is free from any affectation. He does not have that inspired impetuousness, that subjectivity in rendering the work being performed which make up the chief characteristic of artists of the opposite stamp, but, on the other hand, he quite literally enchants the listener with his impeccable elegance, which never deserts him for one moment, and with his profound comprehension of both the whole of the work and the constituent details. The combination of so many outstanding qualities makes for an uncommonly fascinating artistic individuality.

I am very glad indeed that the Muscovite public received Mr Bülow with that warmth which he is used to encountering wherever he appears on a concert podium, and this was all the more remarkable here in that Mr Bülow's programme did not pander in any way to our public's weakness for the so-called light genre. The audience listened patiently not just to Bach's long Chromatic Fantasy, in which the old master's exuberant imagination struggles in vain with the conventional elements of the compositional routine of his time, but even to a work by a contemporary composer, Rheinberger [2], who poured out his scanty musical ideas into a long since antiquated form which could hardly appeal to the audience. Mr Bülow achieved the greatest acclaim that evening with his interpretation of Beethoven's sonata in E-flat major [3], Chopin's Berceuse, and two Études by Liszt with which this brilliant recital came to a close. After several curtain-calls Mr Bülow came out again and played a Mazurka by Liszt as an encore.

Finally, I would like to share with readers the pleasant news that Mr Bülow, who has now set off for a concert tour to Kharkov, Odessa, and Kiev, intends to stop over in Moscow on his way back and give a further concert here, which will probably take place during Holy Week. No matter how much Moscow has been spoilt of late by the frequent opportunity of hearing first-rate pianists, it is impossible not to rejoice in the thought that we will soon have another chance to enjoy the piano playing of so rare a guest as Mr Bülow.

The programme of the Russian Musical Society's ninth symphonic concert comprised the following works: 1) Goldmark's [4] overture-fantasia to the poem Sakuntala; 2) Mr Laub's Violin Concerto [5], played by the author himself; 3) a chorus by Bortnyansky [6]; and 4) Schubert's Great C major Symphony.

Goldmark belongs to the most talented contemporary German composers of the second rank. The most well-known of his few published works is the Sakuntala overture, which has entered the repertoire of all existing philharmonic societies and has everywhere awakened the favourable attention of both audiences and music critics. The principal theme of this overture is of a purely French character and resembles in its design and harmonization (an orchestral pedal point on the dominant) the melodies of Auber [7]. Of the two secondary themes in the Allegro, the first, which is fanfare-like in character, is quite ordinary, albeit very skilfully elaborated on; the second, written under the direct influence of Wagnerian cantilena, is very beautiful. In the overture's form, in the development of the three themes, and the splendid instrumentation there is clearly a lot of talent and genuine warmth. It is a work which one listens to from start to finish with the greatest pleasure, though it must be said that at this concert a large part of the audience will have unfortunately lost out somewhat on this pleasure because no detailed programme notes were provided.

I simply cannot understand what higher considerations the organizers of the Russian Musical Society's concerts have in mind when they decide whether or not to print detailed programme notes, which are so indispensable for certain works that are evidently based on a very specific extra-musical programme [8]. In this case such carelessness is all the more incomprehensible and unforgivable in that I still remember very well the detailed programme for Sakuntala which was printed on the Musical Society's poster some five years ago, when this work was performed here for the first time [9]. I can assure the organizers that the pleasure derived by those in the audience who were listening attentively would have been intensified if they had had a better idea of what exactly Goldmark was seeking to illustrate in his overture.

In Mr Laub's Violin Concerto what I liked most of all was the final movement, which testifies to the author's indisputable compositional gifts. It is written in a lively manner, and it is replete with very nice harmonic details and piquant rhythmic effects. The middle movement, with its broad melodic sweep and elegant form, also produced a very agreeable impression. As for the first movement, to me it seemed as if it had been patched up out of various separate fragments which did not really fit together, even if these fragments, taken separately, were not devoid of attractive features. The concerto was performed by Mr Laub with the mastery which is always characteristic of his playing, with incomparable verve and fullness of tone.

Bortnyansky's chorus attracts attention because of its fine harmonic and contrapuntal texture, but it does not otherwise display any outstanding qualities as such. The concluding fugue is very long and poor in musical substance. I would, though, like to point to one negative virtue of this work: it does not have any of those unbearably importunate parallel thirds and sixths which our renowned composer was so fond of that he couldn't write a single page of music without making use of them. These parallels, which may be very gentle but are contrary to the requirements of harmonic beauty, give Bortnyansky's music a sickly-sweet and monotonous character, which some ten years ago provoked a sharp reaction on the part of some lovers of church singing, resulting in the late N. M. Potulov's [10] settings of the old Orthodox chants, which are marred by the opposite faults: an excessive dryness and the primitive rawness of the harmony.

The last work on the concert's programme was Schubert's famous Symphony in C major. This gigantic composition—which stands out for its tremendous proportions, huge strength, and the wealth of inspiration it contains—was discovered by Schumann in the 1830s, amongst the many other manuscripts left behind by this artist who died as a genius unrecognized by his contemporaries. Schubert's biographers tell us that he wrote nine symphonies, and yet only one of them has become the property of concert audiences, unless one also includes the two movements of the delightful, unfinished symphony in B minor [11].

Of the huge number of compositions by Schubert, the C major Symphony is almost certainly his most significant work. The plenitude of beautiful and original melodies, the magnificent elaboration of these in places, the ingenuousness and simplicity of the exposition, the variety of contrasting effects, a special, original charm in its harmonisation, the freshness of the national element [12] which predominates in the melodic design—all this gives Schubert's symphony a unique magic, which irresistibly captivates the listener's attention. In the Finale Schubert rises to a pathos that is truly staggering, to an ideal beauty and force of musical creativity. Both the symphony and the choral piece which preceded it were performed splendidly—especially the symphony, whose beauty evidently inspired the orchestra's musicians.

"B. L."


Notes and References

  1. See TH 287 for Tchaikovsky's review of Anton Rubinstein's great recital in Moscow on 5/17 March 1874.
  2. Joseph Rheinberger (1839–1901), German composer, notable organ teacher and professor of music theory in Munichnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. It is not clear which one of Beethoven's four sonatas in E-flat major is meant here — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. Karl Goldmark (1830–1915), Hungarian-Jewish composer. Tchaikovsky, however, goes on to discuss him as if he unconditionally belonged to the German school of music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), Czech violinist, conductor, and composer, taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1866 to 1874 and was also chief conductor of the Russian Musical Society's symphony orchestra. Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 3 (1876) is dedicated to his memory. The Violin Concerto in question (written between 1850 and 1874) was never published and has therefore been lost to posterity — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. In 1881–82 Tchaikovsky would be occupied in editing and arranging the Complete Church Music of the notable Ukrainian-born Russian composer Dmitry Bortnyansky (1751–1825), whose sacred choral works are still regularly performed, but who also wrote several operas and some chamber music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. See TH 266 for a detailed appreciation of Auber.
  8. In TH 273 Tchaikovsky had already criticized the Russian Musical Society's organizers for failing to provide detailed programme notes—on that occasion with regard to some choruses from Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus.
  9. The Moscow premiere of Goldmark's Sakuntala overture took place at a symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society on 27 January/8 February 1868, conducted by Nikolay Rubinsteinnote by Vasily Yakovlev.
  10. Nikolay Mikhaylovich Potulov (1810–1873), expert on Russian Orthodox chants; he published a multi-volume Compendium of Russian Liturgical Chants (Сборник церковных песнопений) (Moscow, 4 vols., 1876–98) and wrote a Manual for the Practical Study of Liturgical Singing in the Russian Orthodox Church (Руководство к практическому изучению древнего богуслужебного пения православной российской церкви) (Moscow, 1873) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Incredible as it may seem, Schubert's earlier symphonies might have been lost to posterity altogether had the manuscripts not been rescued by Sir George Grove and Arthur Sullivan in 1867, eventually leading to their publication in the 1897 critical edition by Breitkopf & Härtel. The manuscript of the Great C major Symphony (No. 9), however, had been discovered by Schumann in 1839 and it was premiered that year in Leipzig, at a concert conducted by Mendelssohn. The Unfinished Symphony (No. 8) was first performed in Vienna in 1865, that is just nine years before Tchaikovsky wrote this article. In TH 300 he discusses briefly a performance of this magical symphony in Moscowtranslator's note.
  12. The term «народный элемент» might also be translated as 'folkloric element' if we could be sure that Tchaikovsky actually had in mind the resemblance of some of the themes in this symphony to German folksongs. When discussing Der Freischütz in TH 282, Tchaikovsky also refers to the «народный элемент» in Weber's music — translator's note.