The Sixth Russian Musical Society Concert. The Italian Opera. A Quartet Session

The Sixth Russian Musical Society Concert. The Italian Opera. A Quartet Session (Шестое собрание Русского музыкального общества · Итальянская опера · Квартетный сеанс) [1] (TH 273 ; ČW 537) was Tchaikovsky's eleventh music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 10 January 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

The article contains a valuable definition of classicism in music, especially as upheld in the German school of music, in which Tchaikovsky clearly places Cherubini despite his Italian origins; a sympathetic appraisal of Anton Rubinstein's achievements as a composer, which also notes his failings (excessive productivity and neglect of details); enthusiastic praise for the music and plot of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, but a damning review of its staging by Merelli's company (except for the performances of Emilio Naudin as Raoul and Antonio Cotogni as Nevers).


Completed by 10/22 January 1873 (date of publication). Concerning the sixth Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow on 19/31 December 1872, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring the overture to Cherubini's opera Anacréon, two choruses from Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus, S.99, Anton Rubinstein's Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 42 "Ocean", Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, with Vera Timanova as soloist, who played as encores Scarlatti's Pastorale & Capriccio, Chopin's Étude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3, and Hans von Bülow's Tarantella; a production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots by the Italian Opera Company, with Mathilde Mallinger as Valentine; and a chamber music concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on 7/19 January 1873 at which Ferdinand Laub and the members of his quartet performed Schumann's Piano Quintet, Op. 44 (with Nikolay Rubinstein), a string quartet in D minor by Mozart, and Beethoven's String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59: 2 (2nd "Razumovsky" quartet). Also announcing the seventh Russian Musical Society symphony concert (reviewed in TH 274).

English translation

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The Sixth Russian Musical Society Concert

I am in the debt of readers of the Russian Register. Various circumstances, including a rather long period in which I was away from Moscow, have prevented me from giving in due time an account of the most outstanding events in our city's music life. Now I shall quickly try to fill in this significant gap in my musical chronicle with a brief survey of everything that has taken place. I will start with the sixth concert of the Russian Musical Society, which I haven't yet had the opportunity to discuss. The programme for this concert included the overture to Cherubini's opera Anacréon, two choruses by Liszt (from his music to Herder's Prometheus) [2], and Anton Rubinstein's "Ocean" Symphony.

Cherubini, in spite of his Italian origins and the fact that he was active as a composer at the same time as Rossini, was a pure exponent of the strictly classical German school of music and displayed a remarkable creative talent which has many affinities with the genius of Mozart and Beethoven. In his music one finds the same classical organic unity of form, the same sober simplicity and moderation, the same roundedness in the development of the themes and modesty in the choice of orchestral effects. On the other hand, because his music does not show strong individuality, that is sharply delineated originality of invention, he is regarded merely as a bright satellite of the two abovementioned stars of the first magnitude, and he enjoys the general respect and attention of professional musicians as opposed to real popularity.

Only in the realm of sacred music, in his masses and requiems, does Cherubini appear as an exemplary composer, who had no rivals in his time, since Beethoven in his masses, as I have already once had occasion to observe [3], went beyond the boundaries which delimit this kind of art and used the liturgical words simply as a pretext for expressing that same grandiose feeling of universal human suffering which is characteristic of the whole predominantly subjective oeuvre of this resplendent luminary in the firmament of music.

Nowadays, unfortunately, the name of Cherubini appears only quite rarely in the concert programmes of philharmonic societies, even though it would be precisely to his music that one ought to turn if one were looking for a strong antidote against the morbid refinement of our contemporary composers. The overture to Anacréon is from one of Cherubini's finest works, and, although in terms of depth and passion it is inferior to his best overture—namely, that of Les deux journées—it does surpass the latter as far as overall structural perfection is concerned. Orchestral musicians like to play such works, which make quite an impression but do not require any effort as such from the performers, and this explains the particularly fine rendition of the Anacréon overture at the last concert.

The choruses from Liszt's Prometheus are magnificent. The audience particularly liked the reapers' chorus, which is melodically beautiful, offers plenty of striking vocal effects for the choral parts, and is splendidly scored and full of a kind of joyful mood, even if the whole piece is not especially profound as such. The Chorus of Oceanids (who comfort the chained Prometheus in his suffering) is one of Liszt's finest scores. Unfortunately, due to the carelessness of the management, who failed to have the text of the chorus printed in the programme notes, the audience was unable to appreciate fully the whole fantastic charm of this small excerpt, which is marked by the most luxurious imagination. It would be most desirable if in future such oversights were not allowed to deprive audiences of the opportunity to enjoy works which are quite often of the finest sort but which just cannot be understood if the text or the subject which is supposed to be illustrated by the music haven't been made clear in detailed programme notes.

Rubinstein's "Ocean" Symphony, which was written fifteen years ago, is the work of a young, ebullient, but already fully-fledged talent. This symphony is almost certainly the culminating point in the artistic trajectory of our famous compatriot, whose one failing, as is well known, lies in his excessive productivity that in his case is bound up with insufficient elaboration of details and a certain carelessness in the choice of subjects, both of which stem from his inability to critically and objectively evaluate his initial drafts. But what makes Mr Rubinstein so valuable is that in our age, marred as it is by the absence of composers with original [4] talent, his is in effect almost the only musical individuality around—and an extremely appealing one at that—an individuality which stands quite aloof from the morbid and feeble striving after originality of many recent authors, and which has managed to express itself in its own distinct and deeply-felt music.

The "Ocean" Symphony initially consisted of four movements, of which the first stood out in particular for its inspired beauty and the broad masterly strokes with which it was written. Subsequently, Mr Rubinstein added two more movements to his symphony which are, it is true, very nice, but which disrupt the artistic balance of the classical sonata form and make his splendid work excessively long, as a result of which an exhausted listener will hardly be able to sustain, for the whole duration of the piece, the feelings which had been so irresistibly awakened in him at the start of the symphony. If a person has had enough to eat and you try to feed him with ambrosia even, his taste-buds will lose their sensitivity and he will turn away with disgust from the delicate aromas of the morsel you are offering him.

Just as it is impossible to view, with the requisite attention and susceptibility, five picture-galleries in one day, so is it impossible to achieve an all-round appreciation of the charms of a symphony when it is performed after a number of other long works, and when, moreover, it is made up of no less than six long movements. And so I shall end my review of Mr Rubinstein's fine symphony by expressing my profound regret that an insufficient sense of measure has led to a lamentable prolixity in the structure of this work and thereby, perhaps, paralysed the potential for success with audiences that the "Ocean" Symphony undoubtedly has.

As the soloist in this concert we heard Madame Vera Timanova [5], a most attractive pianist who is already quite well-known both here and abroad. This pupil of the late Tausig [6] picked up from her teacher many of his fine qualities, in particular his immaculate technical precision, his graceful tone and the elegant thoughtfulness of his playing. All that one could wish for more would be for Madame Timanova, who is endowed with a self-confidence that is quite uncommon in someone so young, to put more feeling into all her virtuosity, since, in spite of all her undeniable merits, this young pianist's playing comes across as somewhat cold, that is as lacking that inner fire which constitutes the chief strength of a virtuoso. I have heard that later on in this season Madame Timanova is due to perform once more under the auspices of the Russian Musical Society, at one of its chamber music matinées, and I think that this news will very much gladden our public, which received Madame Timanova with great warmth at this concert.

The Italian Opera

The most significant event at the Italian Opera since the departure of Madame Nilsson has been the revival of Les Huguenots, which took place on 6 January as a benefit performance for the conductor Orsini [7], and which was of great interest for theatre-goers because of the expected début of Madame Mallinger [8], a singer who in Berlin has been likened to Paoline Lucca [9], but who in Saint Petersburg was almost hissed off the stage. However, before saying a word or two about her and the other new figures in the company, I must first of all dwell on the overall effect produced by this performance of Meyerbeer's splendid opera.

Being a permanent resident of Moscow and having listened to plenty of musical howlers on our opera stage over the years, whenever I now visit our theatre I am always braced for going through the most excruciating torments there are for a musician, especially if Signor Merelli's troupe applies itself not to some wishy-washy opera like Lucia or La Traviata, but to one of the major works in the operatic repertoire. That is why when in my capacity as music chronicler I set off for Orsini's benefit production, I knew beforehand that I would get to merely hear a parody of Les Huguenots, rather than Meyerbeer's opera as it is normally staged in any civilized country and at any properly run theatre.

However, what actually happened at Signor Orsini's benefit production by far exceeded anything that the gloomiest pessimist could possibly have expected. It would be in vain to search for words and colours strong enough with which to describe to readers the highly curious cacophony which, under the false name of Les Huguenots, Signor Merelli presented to our public. Suffice it to say that not a single tempo was chosen correctly, that the chorus and orchestra were never quite in time together, and that most of the singers didn't know their cues, as a result of which we were frequently treated to long pauses, which Meyerbeer had not at all intended, and throughout which we could hear Signor Orsini's fingers hitting the piano keys in despair. All in all, such discordant chaos kept on jarring on our ears from beginning to end. And yet it remains a fact that Les Huguenots is one of the finest operas in the whole repertoire, and it is not just to the professional musician, but to the heart of any discerning music-lover that this splendid opera is dear, with its amazing love scene in Act IV—which is surely the greatest ever scene of this kind—with its marvellous choruses, its strikingly original instrumentation, its ardently passionate melodies, its effective musical characterization of Marcel and Valentine, of the Catholics' religious fanaticism and the Huguenots' passive courage.

The only blemish in Meyerbeer's admirable musical canvas is the part of Marguerite de Valois, which is peppered ad nauseam with the most conventional fiorituras—a lamentable concession to the demands of the public in the 1830s, which insisted on every opera featuring at least one coloratura role. However, even this blemish can be smoothed over if the part of Marguerite is entrusted to a singer with a well-developed musical technique.

Unfortunately, Ilma di Murska [10], who is perhaps the most remarkable coloratura soprano of our times, was taken ill, and instead of her we got the pretty and well-fed Madame Ferucci, who hardly knew her part at all and who has a trembling little voice which is unable to produce any tone so that it sounds more or less human.

For the audience, the principal attraction of this performance lay in the Moscow début of Madame Mallinger, whom the idle German critics (who, like all Germans, don't have a clue about singing) have indirectly done a lot of harm by screaming everywhere that their Berlin prima donna was a rival for Paoline Lucca, La Patti, Artôt, and Nilsson. It is understandable that when such high points of reference are invoked, even a fine singer will not be able to live up to the hopes that are placed on her. But quite apart from any such comparisons, what we saw that evening was a rather mediocre singer with a jaded voice, a most unremarkable acting manner and a not quite correct intonation.

It cannot be denied that Madame Mallinger has some ability as a singer and a certain amount of stage experience, but she is devoid of all passion, inspiration, and the power to captivate audiences—in short, she is a golden mediocrity who does not rise one jot above the level of a medium-quality soprano, who would be suitable for sustaining the repertoire in a small provincial opera-house but who must inevitably lose out a great deal if she chooses to appear on the same stage where a singer of such genius as Madame Artôt or the highly gifted Marchisio sisters [11] shone for such a long time, where not so long ago we were charmed by Madames Patti and Nilsson.

The hero of the evening, who took the full weight of the opera on his shoulders and saved the theatre's management from a terrible scandal, was the remarkable singer and artist M. Naudin [12], who despite his venerable age is able to muster (God knows from where!) such vigour and passion, and gave us a performance of irresistible pathos. M. Vidal [13] is a good singer, but an insufficiently low bass for the part of Marcel. Signor Cotogni [14], a favourite of the Saint Petersburg public, appeared here in the secondary role of the Comte de Nevers and sang his part with great elegance. This singer, whom I already had the opportunity to hear in Lucia, has a phenomenally beautiful baritone voice, which is unfortunately undermined a bit by an all too monotonous vibrato.

A Quartet Session

On Sunday the 7th of January, the Russian Musical Society launched its second series of chamber music concerts. The audience which gathered for this first concert was not very big, but this did not lessen the enthusiasm awakened by a splendid performance of Schumann's wonderful quartet [sic] [15] by Mr Laub together with his three string quartet acolytes and N. Rubinstein. Apart from this work, we also heard a rather watery quartet in D minor by Mozart and Beethoven's quartet in E minor with the splendid variations on a Russian folk-song in the third movement.

Finally, I should like to share with my readers the pleasant news that in the Russian Musical Society concert which is scheduled later on this week we will have the chance to hear the Russian singer Madame Nevedomskaya, whom I was myself already able to hear a few days ago at a private musical soirée. Some of the finest musicians in Moscow, who were present at this soirée, were agreeably surprised when they discovered that within the walls of our city we now have an artist with such a strong and rich voice, with a most sensitive and intelligent phrasing, and a remarkably polished technique. For quite a while now Madame Nevedomskaya has been successfully performing in a number of foreign opera-houses, and on various occasions she has also sang in concerts in such cities as Paris. I am fully convinced that here in her native country she will receive even more enthusiastic ovations than those she has always been receiving abroad. At this concert Mr Vorobyev, one of the best pupils of the famous cellist Davydov, will also play Schumann's Cello Concerto.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Sixth Russian Musical Society Concert. The Italian Opera. Quartet Evening' in TH, and 'The Sixth Assembly of the Russian Musical Society—The Italian Opera—The Quartet Session' in ČW.
  2. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic, one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment and Sturm-und-Drang movements. Liszt wrote his symphonic poem based on Herder's drama Prometheus Unbound to commemorate the unveiling of a monument to Herder in Weimar in 1850.
  3. See TH 268.
  4. The word Tchaikovsky uses here—«самобытный» (which is a distinctly Slavic compound: сам + быть, i.e. 'being oneself')—is one that he often uses in preference to «оригинальный» [originalnyi] (whose foreign sound is all too obvious) when discussing the qualities he is looking for in Russian music — translator's note.
  5. 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.
  6. Carl Tausig (1841–1871), Polish pianist and composer, studied with Liszt.
  7. Luigi Orsini (1805–1881), Italian opera conductor — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Mathilde Mallinger (1847–1920), famous Austrian soprano.
  9. Paoline Lucca (1841–1908), famous Austrian-born Italian soprano.
  10. Ilma di Murska (1834–1889), renowned Austrian dramatic soprano.
  11. Barbara Marchisio (1833–1919), famous Italian contralto, and her sister, the soprano Charlotta Marchisio (1835–1872). They both toured Russia with great success in the years 1869–71 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), well-known Italian tenor of French origins.
  13. Antoine Vidal (b.1842), French bass — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  14. Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918), famous Italian baritone, appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg from 1872 to 1894 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. Tchaikovsky almost certainly means Schumann's Piano Quintet, Op. 44 — note by Ernst Kuhn.