The Last Two Quartet Concerts. The First Symphony Concert

The Last Two Quartet Concerts. The First Symphony Concert (Два последних квартетных собрания. Первое симфоническое собрание) [1] (TH 295 ; ČW 560) was Tchaikovsky's thirtieth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 20 November 1874 [O.S.].

It contains critical observations on the indifference towards chamber music of a majority of the Muscovite public; interesting remarks about the Norwegian composer Svendsen; a positive appraisal of Eduard Nápravník's first attempt at writing chamber music, alongside reflections about the puzzling lack of first-rate composers amongst such a musically gifted nation as the Czechs (reflections which are perhaps understandable given that Tchaikovsky's close contemporary Antonín Dvořák did not begin to rise to prominence as a composer until about 1873–75, but which also seem to point to a surprising lack of familiarity with the music of Smetana!); and a dismissal of the Consecration of the House overture as unworthy of such a "musical giant" as Beethoven.

History

Completed by 20 November/2 December 1874 (date of publication). Concerning the Russian Musical Society's second and thirdrd chamber music concerts in Moscow on 27 October/8 November and 10/22 November 1874 respectively, at which the "Russian Quartet" (Panov, Leonov, Yegorov, and A. Kuznetsov) played Johan Svendsen's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 1 (1865) and Eduard Nápravník's String Quartet No. 1 in E major, Op. 16; and the first RMS symphony concert in Moscow on 15/27 November 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Beethoven's Consecration of the House overture, Op. 124, Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2 in B-flat flat major, Op. 52 ("Lobgesang") ["Hymn of Praise"], and Julius Zellner's Piano Concerto, Op. 12 (soloist Anna Yesipova).

English translation

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The Last Two Quartet Concerts

The "Russian Quartet" of Messrs Panov, Leonov, Yegorov, and Kuznetsov, whose merits as an ensemble I discussed in my last review [2], has given two further concerts and thereby consolidated its strong reputation amongst Moscow's select musical public—a reputation which it had long since earned in Saint Petersburg. I used the word "select" here, of course, not in the sense of our fashionable and aristocratic circles, for the cream of Moscow society has always shown a lamentable indifference towards chamber music, no matter who it is performed by. Even such eminent virtuosi as, say, Messrs A. and N. Rubinstein and Mr Laub, have never succeeded in overcoming the indifference, nay, hostility which our public shows towards the greatest works of the classical chamber music repertoire and in filling accordingly the Small Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility on those days when the noble tones of the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann resound from the podium of this elegant venue.

The abovementioned "select" musical public of Moscow, a small group of real connoisseurs, consists (apart from some professional musicians) of a few gentlemen of German origins who always make sure to be present whenever truly good music is being played. And it was these few Germans whose applause, together with that of a handful of professional musicians, gave the Russian Quartet that hearty encouragement which young people so very much need, especially when they are at the start of their artistic career and are striving for the attention of the public, so that, with the boost to their morale that they receive from the latter's approval, they can tread the difficult path of further self-perfection [3].

Now the Russian Quartet really would have been worth the while of our various patriotic patrons of the arts (of which there are quite a few in Moscow) to show—even if only in a wholly passive way, i.e. by the mere fact of their gracious presence at these concerts—their sympathy for these young musicians, who are almost certainly bound to become outstanding representatives of the Russian artistic world. However, these patrons, so apt as they are to astonish everyone with their largesse in donating money to buy a collective present for some famous foreign soprano or in acquiring works of the fine arts, as soon as they know for sure that their names will appear in the newspapers the following day, are prudent enough to abstain from the purchase of a three-rouble concert ticket if this does not present them with a ready opportunity to gain Russia-wide fame as generous protectors of the native arts. Those who are fond of psychological analysis and the study of customs might be able to extract from this an excellent subject for an essay on the type of the Russian Maecenas, who is both generous and stingy at the same time, who likes to make donations, but can't stand having to pay upfront.

Amongst the new works which were performed by the Russian Quartet, I would like to single out two which are particularly outstanding: the string quartets by Messrs Svendsen [4] and Nápravník.

Svendsen is still very young. He is a Norwegian by birth, but a German in terms of the musical education which he received at the Leipzig Conservatory. As a result of the combination of these two essential factors in his musical creativity, that is splendid German technique and Scandinavian nationality, he is a very remarkable and at the same time agreeable phenomenon amidst the scarcity of original talents in the sphere of contemporary musical composition. Although his talent is not of the first rank, it is certainly not devoid of originality and towers far above the general level of the mediocrities of which there are so many in the newest cohort of Mendelssohnian-Schumannesque composers.

His music is full of life, verve, brilliance, and spontaneity. It is free from German routine and displays now and then a boldness and novelty of form. In this respect Svendsen's Octet is particularly noteworthy: its second movement (Scherzo), with its charmingly capricious melodic design, its sharply accented and varied rhythm, and uncommonly lustrous instrumentation, deserves to be included amongst the most captivating works created in the past decade. Unfortunately, Svendsen's fine qualities as a composer manifest themselves least of all in the String Quartet upon which my current appraisal of this young artist is supposed to bear. But that is not surprising, since this quartet is his first work and was probably written whilst he was still a student. Nevertheless, in the third movement (Allegro scherzando) one can already sense a talent which is far beyond the ordinary.

Mr Nápravník has long since enjoyed wide repute as an excellent opera and symphony orchestra conductor. As a composer he made his mark six years ago with an opera The Nizhny-Novgorodians, which achieved a considerable success in Saint Petersburg [5]. Mr Nápravník was then silent for a number of years until suddenly two major works by him appeared last year: a symphony and a string quartet [6]. The former, which had its first performance in Saint Petersburg, I have not yet been able to hear.

As for the String Quartet, which was excellently played for us by Messrs Panov, Leonov, Yegorov, and Kuznetsov, that has produced a very strong impression both in Saint Petersburg and now in our city. It is a far cry from that Kapellmeistermusik [7] which many people had been expecting of Mr Nápravník, especially since his Czech nationality gave rise to a quite natural prejudice regarding his abilities as a composer. For it is a curious fact that the Czechs, although they occupy the first place amongst all the peoples of Europe as far as the cultivation of music is concerned, have to this day not yet produced a single first-rate composer. I shall not attempt to set forth the profound historical factors which may perhaps explain why the Czechs are, on the one hand, without exception a musical nation and can count many splendid virtuoso instrumentalists amongst their ranks, but do not, on the other hand, possess any creative gifts as such.

I shall merely limit myself to acknowledging this fact and observing in this context that Mr Nápravník evidently seems to be the first and so far the only exception to this rule [8].

Mr Nápravník's gifts as a composer are beyond any doubt. His String Quartet impresses above all through its extraordinary technical mastery, both in the sense of formal structure and in terms of its exceptionally luxurious and rich instrumentation. The cut of his melodic motifs is not strikingly original, but nevertheless it is by no means devoid of individuality and it is certainly a long way from the stereotyped, or, rather, hackneyed manner of the latest second-rate German composers, who still make do with watering down musical material which they have extracted from Schumann and Mendelssohn.

The finest movements of this string quartet are most definitely the two middle ones—in particular the second of these, which the author has called Serenade. Its charming, undulating rhythm, its graceful melody played by the violins in thirds and accompanied by the viola in a very poignant counterpoint, its poetic instrumentation—especially towards the end, when during the reprise the lovely first theme is now played con sordino, thus creating the impression of gentle amorous murmurs wafting over from afar, as it were—all this turns this movement into an incomparable musical vignette in the manner of Schumann's short fantasies for piano.

The first movement, so full of energy and vigour, stands out for its broad strokes and comprises a number of splendid episodes: for example, a pedal point in the middle register which is played as a double-stop pizzicato. Of all the movements in this quartet it is the Finale which turned out the weakest: compared to what it is preceded by, it comes across as somewhat dry and conventional. On the whole, though, Mr Nápravník's first chamber music work is a fine addition to the quartet repertoire and testifies to its author's very appealing talent.

The First Symphony Concert

The first symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society took place last Friday. One cannot but admit that the numerous audience which gathered for this concert had some reason to complain about its tiring length. Neither could its programme be called particularly felicitous.

Beethoven's Consecration of the House overture (Op. 124), does, it is true, belong to his final period—to that period in which the most colossal works of this musical giant sprung forth—but all the same it is dry, empty (if indeed one may apply such a term to a work by Beethoven), devoid of poetry, and, in short, apart from outward technical qualities whose absence would be unthinkable anyway in a composition by so great a master, there is nothing interesting whatsoever about it.

Mendelssohn's Symphony-Cantata is also distinguished more by its excellent structural qualities than by any beauty and richness of content, and, besides, it is excessively long and monotonous in the moods that it expresses. Another defect it has is that one's interest in the work gradually diminishes, and precisely towards the end, when the listener is beginning to feel tired, Mendelssohn does nothing to refresh and reinforce his attention. The opening of the symphony is magnificent—the solemnly triumphant principal theme is beautiful as such and it is, moreover, elaborated with fire, inspiration, verve, and extraordinary mastery. The second movement (Allegretto) causes an enchanting effect thanks to the naïve simplicity of its delightful melody, whose instrumentation is also strikingly effective. However, with the entry of the choruses and soloists it is as if Mendelssohn's inspiration had forsaken him, and in the remaining ten movements only now and then do we fleetingly glimpse strokes worthy of the pen of a great artist.

Both of these orchestral works were performed admirably, although one cannot help wishing that the female chorus were stronger in terms of numbers: its singing is clear and reliable, but the sound is simply too faint. The solo parts were sung very nicely by Madames Terentyeva and Kadmina [9], as well as by Mr Dodonov.

As for the piano concerto by Zellner [10] which was played by the gifted Madame Yesipova, it is quite incomprehensible to me how such a piece could appear on the programme of a concert of the Musical Society. Never before have I heard such a trite, wishy-washy, insignificant, and childishly banal composition. But then Madame Yesipova was punished for her unfortunate choice by such a frosty reception on the part of the audience as had probably never been experienced before by this outstanding young artiste.

To summarize all that I have said above, I would like to state in conclusion that the Russian Musical Society—this being the only institution in Moscow where, thanks to the fact that it is headed by such a splendid conductor as N. G. Rubinstein, the true music-lover can rest from the banality which pervades our state and private theatres—ought to be more careful in drawing up its programmes. The existing orchestral literature is so rich that its finest works alone would suffice to fill the programmes of a good hundred concerts.

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Last Two Quartet Concerts. First Symphony Concert' in TH, and 'Two Last Quartet Assemblies. The First Symphonic Assembly' in ČW.
  2. See TH 294.
  3. This whole paragraph was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev—but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), edited by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. Johan Svendsen (1840–1911), Norwegian composer and violinist. See TH 268 for a review of his Violin Concerto and some rather more critical remarks on the nature of his talent, although in this earlier article too Tchaikovsky writes approvingly of the Scandinavian folkloric element in Svendsen's music — translator's note.
  5. Eduard Nápravník's first opera The Nizhny-Novgorodians (Нижегородцы), Op. 15, libretto by Pyotr Kalashnikov, was premiered at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre on 27 October/8 November 1868 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. The works in question are Nápravník's Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 17 and his String Quartet No. 1 in E major, Op. 16. The Second Symphony was first performed in Saint Petersburg on 9/21 March 1874 at a concert conducted by the composer himself, and the String Quartet also had its premiere in that city on 1/13 November 1873, at a chamber music concert of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  7. German for 'conductor's music', i.e. the formally accomplished but uninspired music that a concert-master of a municipal orchestra or opera-house in Germany and other countries might be expected to provide on occasion to fill a programme or commemorate some event — translator's note.
  8. The passage starting "especially since his Czech nationality…" in the preceding paragraph and going up to "…exception to this rule" in this paragraph was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev— but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), edited by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. See TH 280 for more information on the mezzo-soprano and actress Yevlaliya Kadmina (1853–1881).
  10. Julius Zellner (1832–1900), Austrian composer — note by Ernst Kuhn.