The Second Week of the Concert Season

The Second Week of the Concert Season (Вторая неделя концертного сезона) (TH 278 ; ČW 542) was Tchaikovsky's fifteenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 18 March 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains criticisms of Moscow's musical dilettantes and self-styled patrons of the arts who failed to support such gifted Russian artists as the young pianist Vera Timanova, whom Tchaikovsky again praises enthusiastically; yet another scathing attack on Dmitry Slavyansky's pseudo-Russian concerts, as well as a brief discussion of Russian folksong as a treasure which had to be approached with genuine love and respect; enthusiastic praise for the originality of Balakirev's oriental fantasy Islamey but also laments his lack of productivity as a composer; a comparison of the Russian-made Becker pianos with those manufactured by Carl Bechstein.

History

Completed by 18/30 March 1873 (date of publication). Reviewing a "Grand Concert by Mr Melnikov, with the participation of Madame Yengalycheva, Mr Vasilyev, and N. G. Rubinstein, as well as the orchestra of the Moscow Imperial Theatres" which took place on 5/17 March 1873 at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, with Melnikov singing Ruslan's Act 2 aria from Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila and Wolfram von Eschenbach's aria "O du mein holder Abendstern" from Wagner's Tannhäuser, and the orchestra playing the Ruslan overture; a "Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert by W. Fitzenhagen, with the participation of Madames Anna and Sofiya Katruchina, Messrs Hartvigson (from London) and Laub, as well as the orchestra of the Moscow Imperial Theatres" which took place on 6/18 March 1873 at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, and featured a Concert fantastique for cello and orchestra by Fitzenhagen himself; a "Concert by Madame V. Timanova with the participation of Mr F. Laub" which took place on 7/19 March 1873 in the Small Hall of the Moscow Assembly of the Nobility; an extraordinary Russian Musical Society symphony concert for the benefit of Nikolay Rubinstein, which took place in Moscow on 9/21 March 1873 and was conducted by Ferdinand Laub, featuring the overtures to Schumann's Genoveva and Weber's Der Freischütz, a choral excerpt from Liszt's Prometheus, as well as the beneficiary himself performing his brother Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 35, Schumann's Carnaval suite, Op. 9, Balakirev's oriental fantasy Islamey, Liszt's Mephisto Waltzes, Field's Nocturne in A major, Chopin's Impromptu in F-sharp major, Anton Rubinstein's Caprice russe, Op. 112, and Au bord d'une source from Liszt's first Années de Pélerinage suite; the 2nd RMS chamber music matinée (3rd concert series) on 11/23 March 1873, featuring Beethoven's String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18/1 and Schumann's String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41, No. 3, as well as a number of other works.

English translation

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I am continuing with my chronicle of the concerts taking place in Moscow. The second week of the season was no less abundant in concerts than the first and may perhaps even have surpassed it in that respect if one also includes the various musical soirées of a more or less private character which were organised for the members of Moscow's clubs. Indeed, if one were to go by the number of concerts, musical soirées, and divertissements at the Slavyansky Bazar [1], which are being announced daily, one might easily think that our Moscow really is one of the music centres of the world, that it is a rival for Vienna, Munich, Leipzig, Berlin… But, good Lord!, how much torpid ignorance, how much coarse lack of discernment lies hidden under these tawdry manifestations purporting to refined European civilization! Our aesthetic inclinations are, as in the past, still determined by a backwoods mentality of the Zamoskvorechiye [2] kind! How wide a gulf still separates us from the level of artistic development attained in the great European music centres! How easily we let ourselves be taken in by any old charlatan who flatters our stupidity and panders to our false patriotism! [3]

On Monday last week, a concert was given at the Bolshoi Theatre by Messrs Melnikov [4] and Vasilyev [5], of whom the former is to this day still considered one of the finest members of the Russian Opera in Saint Petersburg, whereas the latter was an active member of the Mariinsky Theatre's opera company (the only truly excellent opera troupe in our country) throughout the period of its greatest flourishing, and retired from the stage only last year, at the same time as Madame Lavrovskaya [6] and Mr Nikolsky [7] also left the company. Mr Melnikov has a powerful and handsome baritone voice, which he knows how to use with great delicacy and understanding. The pieces which he chose to perform at his concert testify further to his splendidly earnest approach to his profession, something that is encountered rarely even amongst good singers.

There was a time when Mr Vasilyev would enrapture audiences at the Mariinsky Theatre with his marvellous bass voice. Now, though, his vocal means are very much on the decline, and the irrepressible vibrato which accompanies his every note jars greatly on one's auditory nerves. The audience which gathered for these singers' concert was very small, but so much the greater was the enthusiasm awakened by Mr Melnikov, who gave us a splendid performance of Ruslan's great aria "O pole, pole!" [O field, field!] and a graceful aria from Wagner's Tannhäuser. In spite of the abovementioned defects in Mr Vasilyev's singing, he was nevertheless received very warmly by the audience. The orchestra, conducted by Mr Rubinstein, played with great brio throughout the concert, and gave us a particularly fine performance of the brilliant, truly inspired overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila.

The next day, again at the Bolshoi Theatre, we had the concert by Mr Fitzenhagen. This artist has irrefutable merits: his playing is carefully thought through and enhanced by his proficient and strong technique. Furthermore, in his own compositions Mr Fitzenhagen shows himself to be a fine musician, brought up on the classical masterpieces of the German musical school. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that his popularity here is not sufficiently great yet to attract mass audiences, and so it was very imprudent on his part to choose the Bolshoi Theatre as the venue for his concert: I had never before seen the theatre's auditorium so empty as during this concert. In any case, Mr Fitzenhagen deserves greater attention and sympathy than what he seems to be getting at present, judging by the scanty attendance at this concert, which can hardly have covered even half of the expenses.

Mr Fitzenhagen's new work, his Concert fantastique, testifies to the great strides made by this virtuoso in the field of composition. Its melodic ideas, its form, and also its marvellous instrumentation are all such that this Concert fantastique deserves to be mentioned with great praise. What I like especially is that Mr Fitzenhagen is evidently trying to get away from the generally accepted, routine forms that are normally used in compositions of this kind. The combination of cello and harp in the central episode of this concerto struck me as particularly felicitous, and likewise the merging of the two main themes in the Finale, which allowed the author to demonstrate his considerable skill in counterpoint.

At Mr Fitzenhagen's concert we were also able to hear the Katrukhina sisters, both of whom have good voices but an intonation that isn't quite correct, which means that I can only advise these two young singers to undergo some more training before they commit themselves finally to a musical career. Their beautiful voices are definitely worth such further effort, and it is also important that they should train their hearing properly. I cannot, however, commend the two sisters' choice of works for this concert: in particular, Varlamov's [8] duet The Swimmersy [Пповцы] belongs entirely to that musical trash for which there is no better and more suitable place than in the attics of music-shops.

Madame Timanova's [9] concert, which took place on Wednesday, was also sparsely attended, and this came as a real surprise to me. This pianist had after all enjoyed great success both in the Russian Musical Society symphony concert and at Mr Bezekirsky's [10] concert, and yet not enough zealous music-lovers turned up to fill even just half of the seats in the Small Hall of our city's Assembly. Like Mr Fitzenhagen, this highly-gifted young musician will almost certainly have suffered a considerable financial loss, and this in spite of the fact that she had letters of recommendation addressed to some of our local would-be patrons of the arts, and that she certainly deserved to have at least been safeguarded against a financial fiasco of this kind.

But no! How could it be otherwise?! If it is a case of organising a soirée with Italian singers, of appearing alongside them on the podium with the brazen self-confidence of true dilettantes, of tyrannizing the audience's ears with one's ridiculous incompetence and a whole firework of wrong notes and meaningless squeaking, then our dilettantes—and especially the ladies among them—will easily find the courage for that! But when it comes to supporting and encouraging a truly remarkable young and gifted musician, who is a real credit to her country—that they are not in the least willing to do! For them, that would be merely an unwanted extra burden!

At this concert Madame Timanova, whose amazing successes I already mentioned in my earlier review, managed to surpass even herself! What confidence, what mastery and fine thoughtfulness we find in this young girl! What accuracy there is in her highly artistic interpretations, which are moreover distinguished by the absence of any deliberate attempts at external flashiness! Let us wish Madame Timanova good luck in continuing with the further development of her musicianship and exhort her not to let herself be discouraged by those frustrations which often beset talented young people at the beginning of their careers. Sooner of later her manifest gifts and striving for self-perfection will pay off with rich dividends.

Together with Mr Laub, Madame Timanova performed a violin sonata by A. Rubinstein and a host of smaller pieces by the most renowned composers for the piano from all schools and historical epochs. In all these works she managed, with incredible empathy, to capture and communicate to the audience their character and mood. Moreover, she played all these works without ever so much as glancing at a score, which says a lot about this young artist's remarkable musical memory.

On Thursday we then had Mr Slavyansky's [11] concert. There are limits to all diligence, and mine was certainly not sufficient for me to attend the dazzling triumph which was accorded there to this clever exploiter of our Muscovite patriotism. Besides, concerts of the kind that are given with such success by Mr Slavyansky have nothing to do with music in the sense of serious art. And yet, all the same, Mr Slavyansky's pursuits are quite instructive in many ways. This failed singer, who was once deemed to be completely unsuited for both the stage and the concert podium, embodies certain qualities which are rarely found in Russians: namely, boldness and a spirit of enterprise and initiative, which not only saved him from the miserable, vegetating existence which usually falls to the lot of poor devils without any talent, but actually gave him the opportunity to carve out a splendid career for himself. Now that is what I call fighting against one's ill-starred and talentless fate! It goes to show just how much can be achieved with the admirable determination to open for oneself, at all costs, a comfortable path that is strewn all round with roses without thorns.

For as soon as a Russian—and in particular one who is an artist—suffers some setback, as soon as he realizes what fate is and how difficult it is to struggle against it, he will immediately lose heart, and before you know it he will have taken to drink, and soon you will find him living out his days in fruitless attempts to drown in liquor his unfulfilled hopes, his bitterness and despair [12]. It is well-known that quite a few talented Russians have ruined both their talent and their youth in this way, simply because they were unable to parry the blows of fate which every beginner must reckon with [13].

We should point such people to Mr Slavyansky, whose brilliant example goes to show that if one doesn't succumb to faint-heartedness, but boldly rushes instead to do battle with the adversities of life, then one will always emerge victorious. Of course, not everyone is endowed with such a felicitous impudence that does not shrink even from the tricks of a charlatan in order to throw dust into the eyes of the unenlightened masses. However, I think that it is possible to be successful even without resorting to such tricks—all that one needs to do is to find the soft spot of these unenlightened masses. And that is precisely what Mr Slavyansky has managed to do.

He first tried to make his mark as a performer of serious music, and he was hissed off the concert podium. Then he decided to try his luck on the stage, but was rejected for want of a good voice and lack of theatrical qualities. After that, he assembled a troupe of real, home-bred Czechs and Serbs, arrayed himself in a Hungarian hussar's jacket, adopted a catchy pseudonym, which was clearly meant to flatter the general mood of sympathy for our brother Slavs which was in the air at the time, and struck up rousing songs like "Gde domuv my" [14] —but even then he was not rewarded with success! However, when he came up with the idea of appearing in Moscow without these Czechs and Serbs, and announced that he was going to give a series of Russian concerts (as if there were really such a thing as Russian, German, Spanish, or Chinese concerts!), that was when he finally did shoot to fame!

Russian folksong is a most valuable sample of our national creativity. Its original and distinctive stamp, as well as its amazingly beautiful melodic turns require the most thorough musical erudition if one is to succeed in adapting Russian folksong to the established rules of harmony without distorting its sense and spirit [15]. There are a great deal of banal, purportedly Russian tunes around which have become extremely popular, and to distinguish these from true folk melodies requires both a fine musical sensitivity and a genuine love of Russian song. But what does all this matter to Mr Slavyansky?! He is sure of his success, he knows that he is dealing with an ignorant public which could never imagine that this "Russian singer" might actually be corrupting its musical instincts by making it listen either to distorted folksongs or to fairground farces like the American Waltz. He can even count on the support of several undiscriminating newspapers.

His concerts attract sell-out crowds, he is hailed as a noble champion of Russian art, and, instead of bursting into Homeric laughter, people see in him and his performances something profoundly serious and significant—well, that's wonderful!

As I said above, let us hope that Mr Slavyansky's successful career may serve as a beneficial example of spirit of enterprise and tenacity, so that at least in this respect his lamentable "Russian" concerts might be useful to Russian art, which, in order to thrive and flourish, requires not just gifted and well-trained people, but also those who are determined and energetic. From this point of view I can even reconcile myself with the success which this extremely poor 'singer' is being rewarded with, as well as with his fabulously high box-office returns, which he is getting at the same time as real musicians playing and singing real music have to perform in front of empty rows of seats, and I can likewise bring myself to look with equanimity at the crazy eulogies which some newspapers print about him, at the furore which his rendition of the song "Golubka Masha" [Masha my dove!] awakens, and even at the way in which Mr Slavyansky, in order to pull more wool over the eyes of our naïve Muscovites, sets himself up in his posters as a "collector and arranger of Russian folksongs", as if being an untalented songster qualified one sufficiently to record and harmonize our folksongs properly.

The series of concerts which succeeded one another on a daily basis last week came to a close with a Russian Musical Society symphony concert for the benefit of its conductor N. G. Rubinstein. So much has already been said about the piano playing and accomplishments as a conductor of this celebrated Muscovite musician, as well as about his services on behalf of Russian music, and, besides, he is so well known to our readers, that I do not consider it necessary to go into the characteristic qualities and peculiarities of his interpretations of this or that musical work. On that evening Mr Rubinstein amazed us all by a display of indefatigability which one can only wonder at. He played a piano concerto by his brother which rarely gets performed here, then a long suite of musical scenes by Schumann which has become known under the title of Carnaval, followed by Mr Balakirev's complicated fantasy for piano Islamey, the no-less-difficult Mephisto Waltzes by Liszt, smaller pieces by Chopin, Liszt, and A. Rubinstein, as well as Liszt's delightful fantasia Au bord d'une source as an encore.

Of the new works which hadn't yet been performed in Moscow until now, Mr Balakirev's fantasia with its splendid compositional structure deserves particular attention. As the themes for his work our talented composer used a Lezginka dance and a melodious Tartar song. His elaboration of these main motifs displays remarkable taste, an extraordinary richness of harmonic technique, and a profound knowledge of the qualities of his instrument. In terms of form and the manner in which he uses the piano, Mr Balakirev comes across in this fantasy as an imitator of Liszt's style, but as far as the character of the music itself is concerned, this is a work of undeniable originality.

What a shame that this splendid musician and highly talented composer produces so little. As far as I know, Mr Balakirev has not written anything in the past five or six years apart from this virtuoso fantasy—an incomprehensible indifference towards his remarkable talent, especially when one bears in mind that the latter is backed up by a colossal musical erudition and splendid compositional technique! [16]

The orchestral works on that evening's programme were the overtures from Schumann's Genoveva and Weber's Der Freischütz, both of which were played marvellously by the orchestra under the baton of Mr Laub. In addition to that, the chorus sang a wonderful excerpt from Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus.

In this concert Mr Rubinstein was playing on a new instrument manufactured by the well-known Saint Petersburg firm of Becker [17]. In recent years the Berlin-based manufacturer Bechstein has shown himself to be a dangerous rival for the latter, and, indeed, his pianos have become so popular in both our capitals that for a while it seemed very likely that Mr Becker would soon be forgotten by everybody and left out of business. However, it is a fact that nothing is more beneficial than competition for raising standards and improving the quality of a product.

The Petersburg firm, which until the emergence of Mr Bechstein had reigned supreme on our piano market, now finding itself stung to the quick, concentrated all its energy not just on trying to equal its rival, but even to outdo the latter if possible. These efforts have been crowned with complete success.

The instrument chosen by Mr Rubinstein for his concert displayed a remarkable combination of brilliance, volume, and a timbre which was both metallic and melodious. Without wishing in any way to deny the truly outstanding qualities of Bechstein pianos, it is nevertheless my opinion that for a large concert hall the new Becker pianos are preferable, because in addition to having a soft and pleasant tone, they also offer a remarkable volume of sound.

On Sunday was the second chamber music matinée of the Russian Musical Society, which, apart from the fact that it featured string quartets by Beethoven and Schumann, was made additionally interesting by the appearance of the young pianist Mr Vilborg [18]. He produced a most agreeable impression on the audience thanks to his powerful technique, good phrasing, and the maturity of his musical intuition.

"B. L."


Notes and References

  1. See TH 265 for an ironical discussion of the musical-literary events organised at this famous Moscow hotel.
  2. The Zamoskvorechie is an area of Moscow to the south of the Moskva River. Many plays by Ostrovskyabout the life of the merchant class, with its Old Russian traditions and deeply ingrained prejudices, are set in this part of the city — translator's note.
  3. The final section of this paragraph, from "Our aesthetic inclinations…" onwards, 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. Ivan Melnikov (1832–1906), Russian baritone, sang in many of the premieres of Tchaikovsky's operas and was also an impressive first performer of the title roles inBoris Godunov andPrince Igor. Tchaikovsky dedicated I Never Spoke to Her—No. 5 of Six Romances, Op. 25—to Melnikovnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Vladimir Vasilyev (real name: Kirillov; 1828–1900), Russian bass, joined the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre in 1856, created the role of Pimen at the premiere of Boris Godunovnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. In Lavrovskaya's case it was not a question of retirement, but the result of a conflict with the management of the Mariinsky Theatre which forced her to leave the company and meant that she was unable to take part in the premiere of The Oprichnik in 1874, even though the role of the Boiarynia Morozova had been created on her by Tchaikovsky. See Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 96 — translator's note.
  7. Fyodor Nikolsky (1829–1898), a well-known Russian 'Heldentenor' — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Aleksandr Varlamov (1801–1848), Russian composer and music teacher, famous for his many romances and songs.
  9. Vera Timanova (1855–1942), Russian pianist and piano teacher, studied with Liszt in Weimar in 1872–73, gave many performances of Russian piano music in Western Europe. Tchaikovsky dedicated to her the Scherzo humoristique—No. 2 of the Six Pieces, Op. 19note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. See TH 273, TH 274, and TH 277 for reviews of earlier concerts featuring Vera Timanova.
  11. Dmitry Slavyansky (originally Agrenev; 1836–1908), Russian singer and choir-master who became very popular in the 1870s and 80s with his choral performances of Russian folksongs, and even toured the United States with his choir. See TH 261 and TH 274 for further critical remarks about Slavyansky's activities.
  12. The picture which Tchaikovsky paints here of Russian artists often succumbing to alcoholism was very much anchored in reality (especially in the case of serf artists before 1861, who were always prone to suffer humiliating treatment by their masters). See also the portrayal of the drunken violinist Efimov in Dostoyevsky's unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanova (1849) or the conversation between the sculptor Shubin and his friend Bersenev in Chapter XX of Turgenev's On the Eve (1860) — translator's note.
  13. There is a clear autobiographical note here because Tchaikovsky himself had suffered a number of disappointments at the start of his career—in particular, the severe criticism to which his First Symphony was subjected by Anton Rubinstein and Nikolay Zarembain the autumn of 1866, the lack of success of his first opera The Voyevoda and his symphonic fantasia Fatum in early 1869, and, more generally, the apparent indifference of Anton Rubinstein towards the young composer's works. Unlike those talented Russians who threw in the towel when faced with the least sign of adversity, Tchaikovsky had enough strength of character to persevere in his vocation — translator's note.
  14. «Где домув мий»: a deliberately macaronic rendering in Cyrillic of "Kde domov můj" [Where is my home?]—the opening verse of the Czech national anthem, which was already regarded as such by Czechs under the Habsburg Empire — translator's note.
  15. In 1871, as part of the preparations to commemorate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great, Nikolay Rubinstein had proposed to the musical organizers of the so-called Polytechnic Exhibition that a team made up of Laroche, Tchaikovsky, and Kashkin should travel to various parts of Russia in order to record the tunes and words of folksongs, as well as finding good local performers of these songs who could be invited to Moscow to take part in the Exhibition. Nothing came out of this for financial reasons, but it seems that Tchaikovsky had been very interested in this opportunity to extend his knowledge of Russian folksong (see Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 94). Some years later, on 24 December 1876/7 January 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote to Tolstoy (Letter 527), explaining that the collection of folksongs which the great writer had sent him in the hope that he would do something with them could not be regarded as representative of true Russian folksong because they had all been written down in the bright key of D major and forced into a uniform rhythm, thereby losing much of their original beauty. This again illustrates Tchaikovsky's concern that folksongs had to be treated with great respect and piety — translator's note.
  16. See TH 258 for a more comprehensive tribute to Balakirev's achievements.
  17. The Russian piano manufacturing firm Becker was founded in 1841 by Jakob Becker, and after his death in 1861 his brother Franz took over the business. The firm was acquired by a new owner in 1871, but the original trade name was retained — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  18. V. I. Vilborg, Russian pianist, from 1868 to 1872 a pupil of Karl Klindworth at the Moscow Conservatory — translator's note.