The Last Weeks of the Concert Season
The Last Weeks of the Concert Season (Последние недели концертного сезона) (TH 279 ; ČW 543) was Tchaikovsky's sixteenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 4 April 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".
It contains a brief appraisal of Mozart's Requiem; observations on the coaching of young singers; a scathingly ironic review of some symphonies by Leonid Malashkin; and some sarcastic remarks at the end about the Italomania of the Moscow public.
Completed by 18/30 March 1873 (date of publication). Reviewing an extraordinary Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on 23 March/4 April 1873, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor, K.626, Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 in C major, Liszt's Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes for piano and orchestra, S.123 (soloist Nikolay Rubinstein), and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (soloist Ferdinand Laub); a "Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert by Mr F. Laub" at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 20 March/1 April 1873, in which Ferdinand Laub played short pieces for solo violin by Bach and Paganini; a gala concert (on an unspecified date) by the pupils of the soprano Aleksandra Kochetova; a "Concert with the participation of Madame Aleksandra Krutikova (mezzo), Mr Fyodor Nikolsky (tenor), and the orchestra of the Russian Opera conducted by Leonid Malashkin" which took place on 15/27 March 1873 in the Hall of the Saint Petersburg Assembly of the Nobility and featured songs by Malashkin as well as his Second Russian Symphony on Folk Themes; a "Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert by Fyodor Nikolsky with the participation of Madame Aleksandra Krutikova (mezzo), Mr Stepan Demidov (bass) and an orchestra conducted by the composer Leonid Malashkin" which took place on 28 March/9 April 1873 in the Hall of the Moscow Assembly of the Nobility; the announcement of the Italian Opera's next winter season.
Judging by the lively start to the concert season which has now come to an end, I was naturally expecting to have a lot of interesting material for my musical chronicle. However, these expectations have not been fulfilled at all. During these six weeks not a single one of the celebrated European virtuosi has visited our capital, and, indeed, in the music life of Moscow nothing has happened which might be described as extraordinary in some way or other. The concert season itself ended in a most lamentable fashion, with a concert by the composer Leonid Malashkin , on which I shall have something to say further on.
The most remarkable concert during this whole period was without any doubt that given by the Russian Musical Society for the benefit of the fund it has set up to aid the widows and orphaned children of artists. It would be difficult to imagine a more attractive and felicitous programme in terms of the variety of works that were chosen for performance, and yet the auditorium was half-empty, which means that the proceeds for the said fund were minimal—even though it is a scheme which very much deserves our support because it has been set up to help mainly the families of our city's orchestra musicians, who, as everyone knows, receive very meagre wages and are rarely able to provide adequately for their nearest and dearest.
The principal piece on this concert's programme was Mozart's famous Requiem, this swan-song of the greatest musical genius. I have already had occasion a number of times to speak about the amazing strength of Mozart's genius, about the unattainable beauty of his immortal works. When discussing Don Giovanni, I remarked that, in spite of all the versatility of Mozart's creative gifts, which enabled him to attain, with equal ease, the apogee of perfection in all genres of music, it is only in opera that he does not have any rivals  Only in this sphere of the art of music did he bequeath us such masterpieces which no other composer before or after him has been able to equal.
The famous Requiem, which Mozart wrote shortly before his death, cannot be regarded as his best work. It is true that here too we find that very same indescribable beauty of his polyphonic texture, that same melodic richness and perfection of form, but it is still the case that nowhere in his Requiem did Mozart manage to find an opportunity for displaying his most striking quality, namely the art of musical characterization. Moreover, he also lacked that strong and profound religious feeling which is so essential for composing sacred music. That explains why some movements of his Requiem come across as rather dry. Among the finest sections of this mass—which in any case is a great work—we may single out the splendid poetic Introduction with its double fugue at the end and the deeply moving Lacrimosa, which always leaves audiences spellbound.
This performance of the Requiem was as good as one could ask for in view of the limited numerical strength of the Russian Musical Society's chorus. As far as the soloists are concerned, it must be said that, with the exception of Madame Baikova , none of them was in good voice that evening. Even so, Madame Aleksandrova still managed to sing her part with the musicality, confidence, and artistic flair that she always has at her command. Mr Demidov , however, sang so clumsily that one really did feel ashamed of him: he had evidently not taken the trouble to study his part properly. And yet Mozart would have been worth the effort, Mr Demidov!
At this very same concert we also heard—for the second time this season— Beethoven's Leonore Overture, about which I wrote in one of my earlier articles . The soloists that evening were our two renowned virtuosi, Messrs Rubinstein and Laub. The former played Liszt's brilliant Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes, whereas the latter treated us to a performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.
The annual concert given by Mr Laub at the Bolshoi Theatre also proved to be a resounding success and drew a large audience. It goes without saying that each piece performed by Mr Laub awakened, as always, enthusiastic bursts of applause in which everyone readily joined in. It was with the utmost mastery that he performed two short pieces by Bach and a caprice by Paganini. At this interesting concert the Moscow public also had the chance to acquaint itself with Herr von Derwies , a tenor at the Kiev Opera. This nice singer's voice is not very big but has a most pleasant timbre and shows every sign of good vocal training. He achieved a considerable success.
The concert organized by Madame Aleksandrova, our well-known singing teacher and prima donna at the Russian Opera, left everyone who attended it with most pleasant impressions. We heard at this concert several female pupils of Madame Aleksandrova, as well as one male student of hers, and we can only congratulate them all on having entrusted their talents into such competent and experienced hands. Unlike certain other singing teachers , Madame Aleksandrova does not train her pupils to throw dust into the eyes of the audience with poor trills and clumsy fiorituras. It is clear that what she is above all trying to do is just to assist the natural development and strengthening of her pupils' vocal chords, as well as to encourage a simple, normal production of sound (émission)—and is this not precisely what makes up the whole art of singing? Nothing will ruin a young voice more than forcibly grafting coloratura embellishments onto it, for these require a voice that has been properly trained and therefore acquired its full strength. Madame Aleksandrova does not neglect these refinements in her classes, but she does not make them the focus of everything because what she is above all concerned with is to teach her pupils to sing with a wide range and openness of tone.
I shall not list in detail the names of all the young singers who took part in Madame Aleksandrova's concert, as I would have to lavish praises on all of them without exception. All I will say is that in the course of the whole evening we did not hear a single wrong note, not a single messed-up fioritura, not a single phrase delivered in an un-musical way. As for the actual quality of the voices of Madame Aleksandrova's pupils, I must say that one of them has a phenomenal contralto voice whose deep tessitura is truly remarkable in a girl who is so young and delicately built. Is she not being made to sing in public a bit too early by her venerable teacher? Would it not be better to allow her first of all to gain in strength, to reach a certain degree of maturity in her physical development?
Anyway, this concert very much took place in a family atmosphere, with the pupils and their relatives making up the greater part of the audience. And when I think of Madame Aleksandrova's other pupils who have already performed in public at many concerts and on the stage, that is Madames Kadmina , Baykova, Belyayeva, the Katruchina sisters, who are all endowed with remarkable maturity in their musical understanding and graceful simplicity, and whose phrasing, moreover, is completely free of excessively refined ornaments, I am quite confident that the abovementioned pupil of Madame Aleksandrova's, namely Madame Puskova , will receive from her coach all those tips and aids which this venerable teacher knows how to impart so well in her classes. Mr Yevgrafov, the aforementioned young man who is also studying with Madame Aleksandrova, possesses a fine baritone voice, which has already been given a good setting, as it were, by the thorough and sensible vocal training he is receiving.
All that remains is for me to mention the two concerts by Mr Malashkin which concluded the concert series of this year's Great Lent season. Strictly speaking, it isn't worth discussing the childish efforts of Mr Malashkin, which he grandiloquently refers to as symphonies, but I flatter myself with the hope that with a dispassionate assessment of Mr Malashkin's creations I may perhaps be able to stop him on this slippery path, which, if no one steps in firmly to restrain Mr Malashkin, will perforce lead him together with all his 'compositions' into the hands of psychiatrists.
So far Mr Malashkin's attempts at composing are no more than a harmless passion, but if nothing is done to hinder the development of this passion, then God alone knows what lamentable consequences lie in store for this misguided lover of musical composition. The point is that, in spite of Mr Malashkin's quite amazing lack of talent, he is evidently working hard on perfecting his imaginary abilities as a composer, for in his dreary and aimless musical outpourings one can nevertheless see a certain schooling and theoretical knowledge. One senses also how a lot of painstaking work has gone into stringing together all these musical notes—hard work which would have been better expended on some worthier aim. Neither in Malashkin's "Russian" Symphony nor in his "Triumphant" Symphony was I able to detect a single spark of talent, a single natural and simply presented musical phrase—in short, anything that remotely resembled symphonic development of themes.
It seems generally to be the case that after hatching out some fragmentary little motif, Mr Malashkin sets about repeating it in all possible keys, evidently assuming that this mechanical transposition of one phrase from one key to another is what actually constitutes polyphonic and symphonic development! His instrumentation is massive, heavy-going, and ineffective, showing as it does no ability to vary between the different groups of an orchestra's instruments—in a word, it is talentless to the utmost extreme. And it is these blundering, colourless, and exhaustingly monotonous works of his which Mr Malashkin in real earnest calls "symphonies"! All this is both ridiculous and lamentable, but mainly lamentable because, I shall say it again, Mr Malashkin has almost certainly invested a lot of steadfast, hard work in refining his imaginary talent, and by pursuing in this way a crane in the sky , he is perhaps letting more suitable objects for his activity (more suited, that is, to his circumstances and abilities) slip through his hands.
In order to entice a large audience to listen to his 'symphonies', Mr Malashkin availed himself of the famous name of the tenor Nikolsky , as well as of the Saint Petersburg singer Madame Krutikova , who is beginning to acquire considerable fame. His plan, however, didn't work out, and the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility was completely empty during the Saint Petersburg concerts of Mr Malashkin. In Moscow a slightly bigger audience did turn up, but not a sufficiently big one, I dare say, to cover the presumably very high expenses.
Mr Nikolsky's singing flows as sweetly, albeit monotonously, as before, but his fine voice has suffered considerable dents and faded somewhat with the passage of time. Madame Krutikova has an attractive mezzo-soprano voice, but its charming effect is paralyzed by her frightfully inconsistent intonation. Still, both artists achieved a great success.
The subscription sale of season tickets for the Italian Opera's performances this coming winter has already been announced. I can imagine how fast the hearts of our music-lovers will be beating now after having read the magic name of Adelina Patti on the announcement! And then all those artists whose names haven't been announced yet! What a wide scope that gives you for your assumptions, guesses, and hopes! Hurry, ladies and gentlemen, if you do not wish to be deprived of the pleasure of hearing La Patti once and twenty times, our very own Madame Urban or some other 'prima donna' of her calibre!
Notes and References
- Leonid Malashkin (1842–1902), Russian composer and conductor, wrote several works of Russian Orthodox sacred music and many songs, as well as an opera Ilya Muromets (first staged in Kiev in 1879) which was not a success — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- See TH 262 and TH 276 for these observations on Mozart and Don Giovanni.
- Varvara Baikova (1845–??), Russian mezzo-soprano and contralto, made her début in Kiev in 1870 and was then engaged mainly at the Kharkov Opera. She was also a soloist at the famous performances of Bach's Mass in B minor in Moscow, and the author of a number of songs—note by Ernst Kuhn.
- Stepan Demidov (1822–1876), Russian bass — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- See TH 269.
- Baron N. G. von Derwies (1837–1880), opera singer of German origins — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- A dig at Vladimir Kashperov, who was also a professor of singing at the Moscow Conservatory and with whom Tchaikovsky did not get on very well. See the final paragraphs of TH 277— translator's note.
- Yevlaliya Kadmina (1853–1881), Russian mezzo-soprano and actress whose tragic suicide by taking poison in the middle of a performance of a play inspired a number of literary and musical works, most notably Turgenev's late story Klara Milich (1882), where the heroine also sings a romance by Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart—No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6. Kadmina performed the part of Lel' at the premiere of The Snow Maiden at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 11/23 May 1873, and Tchaikovsky, who greatly admired her talent, would later dedicate one of the Six Romances, Op. 28 (1875) to her. See also TH 280 for his enthusiastic review of her performance as Vanya in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar — translator's note.
- Olga Puskova (1857–1913), Russian contralto and mezzo-soprano, related to the writer Ivan Turgenev, sang in Kiev and Kharkov, studied with Pauline Viardot-Garcia in Paris in 1877, joined the Imperial Theatres' operatic troupe in 1878. Tchaikovsky apparently created an additional aria for her when she was due to perform the role of Basmanov in the Kiev production of The Oprichnik on 9/21 December 1874 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- A phrase based on a Russian proverb which cannot be directly translated into English: «не сули журавля в небе, а дай синицу в руки» (lit. "don't promise me a crane in the sky, just put a blue-tit into my hands"), the meaning of which is equivalent to "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" — translator's note.
- Fyodor Nikolsky (1829–1898), a well-known Russian 'Heldentenor' — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- Aleksandra Krutikova (1851–1919), Russian contralto and mezzo-soprano, sang at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre from 1872 to 1876, subsequent engagements in Paris and Milan. Tchaikovsky, who greatly appreciated her, dedicated two songs to her—No. 1 of the Six Romances, Op. 25 and No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 57 — note by Ernst Kuhn.