The Third Week of the Concert Season

The Third Week of the Concert Season (Третья неделя концертного сезона) [1] (TH 305 ; ČW 570) was Tchaikovsky's fortieth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 25 March 1875 [O.S.].

The article contains an interesting discussion of the development of the solo concerto form; a tribute to the musicianship of Karl Davydov; praise and well-meant advice for the violinist Adolph Brodsky; an enthusiastic appraisal of the depth of feeling and sincerity of the soprano Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya, especially in her account of Schubert's "delightful" Erlkönig ballad, which Tchaikovsky compares to the various vocal adornments and tricks used by Italian singers; quite critical remarks about Liszt's Dante Symphony, whose bombastic striving after effects is contrasted with the "simplicity" and "inexhaustible richness" of Mozart's Zauberflöte overture which made the latter "one of the unfading wonders of art"; and a very positive review of Leopold Auer's performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, which had been one of the works most associated with the late Ferdinand Laub

History

Completed by 12/24 March 1875 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reviewed the following events:

English translation

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Last week was quite literally packed with concerts. I shall discuss each one of them in chronological order:

1) Mr Davydov's concert. Of the numerous instruments which make up the roster of a modern orchestra, only two (namely the violin and cello), as well as the piano, the king of instruments, have been able to hold their ground on the contemporary concert podium. There was a time when the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, and even the trombone had their famous exponents in the world of virtuosity and enjoyed equal rights on the podium with the three instruments which dominate the latter nowadays. Yes, there was a time when our grandmothers would be overcome with delight at the strains of a flute concerto, and our grandfathers would listen open-mouthed whilst some visiting bassoonist enraptured the audience with the wonders of his virtuoso artistry.

These times are a long way from ours. The poetic whistle of the flute, the characteristically graceful nasal sounds of the oboe, the comically frail snoring of the bassoon, the hunting fanfares of the French horn, and the thunderclaps of the trombone—all these have now become the exclusive property of orchestral music. They are all like puddles of paint on the symphonist's palette providing him with rich material with which to colour his tone-paintings. In the world of instrumental music a process is taking place before our eyes which is analogous to what happened to our historical system of apanage principalities and towns with popular assemblies (veche), when these autonomous territories were absorbed by the autocratic power of the Tsar. There is good reason to foresee in the not so distant future a time when these last traces of the independent musico-historical existence of secondary instruments will have vanished, and the realm of instrumental music will be lorded over completely by the orchestra, together with the piano, its colourless but faithful photographic likeness.

The more widespread musical appreciation becomes amongst the bulk of the public, the less the latter will feel attracted by virtuosity in the narrow sense, i.e. by finger acrobatics employed for the execution of passages, fiorituras, and leaps—in other words, by that element of music in which there is no thought as such, but merely the overcoming of physical challenges. Since virtuoso concert music is unthinkable without the predominance of this element, it makes sense that with the raising of the level of musical understanding, the orchestra as a collective personality has attained an infinitely higher status than each individual taken separately, i.e. each instrument which makes up its ranks.

Of the three rivals on the arena of virtuosity, the cello is gradually being edged out, and, like its predecessors, the wind instruments, it is moving away into the musical republic of the orchestra. That the cello, from its heyday as a virtuoso instrument, is now entering the last phase of decline, is clear from the way that for many years now the concerto repertoire for the cello has not been enriched by any new works. Every music-lover is familiar with the constant, tearful laments of cellists about their not having anything to play. The earlier works are ageing and fading, but there are no new ones to replace them.

The cello, which is endowed with an uncommonly beautiful timbre and which produces an enchanting effect when in the orchestra it comes forward for a while and separates itself from the other fellow-citizens of equal status in the republic of instruments, has ceased to awaken the creative inspiration of composers for those musical forms in which it is supposed to dominate exclusively.

In these last throes of the cello's struggle for an independent existence, it takes a huge talent and a complex aggregate of virtuoso qualities if, after walking out onto the concert podium with a cello in one's hands, one intends to attract successfully the audience's attention. There are so few renowned virtuoso cellists at present, that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of these few virtuosi, who feels at home on all the concert podiums of Europe, is K. Yu. Davydov, in whom we find a felicitous combination of all the necessary qualities for him to occupy the foremost rank amongst all living cellists. His name has recently resounded loudly across all Europe again, thanks to the tremendous success which he achieved at a number of concerts he gave in Paris.

Mr Davydov's playing is distinguished by an astonishing precision, mellowness and beauty of tone, a noble lyricism in cantilena passages, and a staggering technical dexterity. At his concert Mr Davydov played for us an antiquated, rather meagre piece by Romberg [2], his own Fantasy on Russian Themes, and several charming shorter pieces, some of which were original compositions, and others were his transcriptions of piano pieces by Schumann.

Mr Davydov shared the ovations at his concert with N. G. Rubinstein, who performed a Barcarolle and Waltz by his brother, as well as Carl Tausig's arrangement of Schubert's Military March. No less successful was Madame Terentyeva, who recently made such a memorable début in the role of Martha [3] in a student production at the Conservatory. At this concert Madame Terentyeva displayed both remarkable skill and a great deal of taste in her performance of an aria from I Puritani, as well as two Russian songs.

On this same date in the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility there was also a very interesting literary and musical soirée whose proceeds went to the Society for Aid to Governesses [4]. Although the placard for this soirée flaunted the names of many beloved local artists, I could not help giving preference to Mr Davydov's concert, since his appearances in Moscow are unfortunately so rare.

2) Mr Brodsky's concert. In connection with Mr Brodsky's participation in various symphony concerts of the Russian Musical Society, I have already spoken several times about the remarkable talent of this young virtuoso [5]. This concert of his now, in which, amongst other works, he also performed one of the most difficult pieces in the violin repertoire—Ernst's [6] concerto in F-sharp minor—serves as ample proof that Mr Brodsky has not been resting on the first laurels that he won so easily thanks to his felicitous innate qualities. He is clearly working on his musicianship, and, moreover, is doing so in a thoughtful and assiduous manner, worthy of a true artist.

I will take the liberty of making just one critical observation. Mr Brodsky is evidently striving to match the late Ferdinand Laub in strength of intonation: that is very commendable of him, but in the Ernst concerto I did hear some harsh sounds from the G string which rather grated upon the ears. Strength and harshness are not synonyms, though. It would be desirable for Mr Brodsky not to go beyond a certain limit in this pursuit of strength of tone, especially since powerful intonation is something that is amply represented amongst the natural attributes of his talent.

With regard to the works on Mr Brodsky's programme, the one that left me with the most agreeable impression was Beethoven's so-called "Kreutzer Sonata", which was splendidly performed by our soloist together with Mr Rubinstein at the piano. Madame Kadmina also sang very nicely and gracefully an aria from Thomas's Mignon [7].

3) Madame Lavrovskaya's concert. It goes without saying that the name of Madame Lavrovskaya attracted a huge audience to the theatre. If the auditorium of the Bolshoi had been ten times greater, or if this singer were to give ten more concerts, that would still not be enough to satisfy the public—a public which in this case so deservedly wished to pay the requisite tribute of enthusiasm and admiration to this most appealing of singers. Madame Lavrovskaya had not been in our city for three years. In this space of time she has achieved some truly astonishing successes.

Quite apart from her wonderfully even and velvety, mellow voice, which in these three years has doubled its strength, as well as becoming firm and settled, she has also improved her technique in a most remarkable fashion and, in particular, perfected her innate aptitude for delicate, deeply felt, and often quite truly staggering artistry in her manner of phrasing. Of all the pieces she performed, it was Schubert's Erlkönig which on me personally produced the strongest impression—an utterly indelible one. What simplicity, free from all affectation, what tragic feeling and passion, what irresistible magic of sound there was in her rendition of this delightful ballad!

And the most valuable thing about Madame Lavrovskaya is that she does not resort to any outward effects, that she does not become theatrical or avail herself of the tricks of female coquetry, in order to enchant her listeners. Nowhere do you sense in her any striving to please by means of the well-known, generally established techniques that are routinely used on the Italian stage for added effect, and which are especially popular with the upper crust of the public. Madame Lavrovskaya never oversteps the bounds of austere, chaste artistry. She copies neither the endless morendo notes of Italian prima donnas, nor their anti-musical dragging out of the tempo or its sudden acceleration (which is so contrary to all common sense and the laws of musical rhythm!), nor their blood-curdling little screams, nor their quite unmotivated fiorituras and trills. No, Madame Lavrovskaya does not rely on any of these cheap tricks to win the audience's approval.

She is evidently concerned not with singing for the sake of effect, but rather with singing well, and yet she attains an incomparably greater effect in this way than any other singer. Madame Lavrovskaya had a colossal success. After performing, in addition to the aforementioned ballad by Schubert, arias from A Life for the Tsar and La Favorita, as well as a few shorter vocal pieces, Madame Lavrovskaya gave way to the audience's insistent pleading and sang Moniuszko's Evening Song as an encore.

Like all the other good concerts we have had, this one, too, was further enhanced by the participation of Mr Rubinstein, without whose indefatigable services both as a conductor and as a piano accompanist it is impossible to get by in Moscow. Mr Fitzenhagen, with great bravura and polish in his attention to detail, played a difficult Fantasy by Servais [8].

4) The tenth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society. Liszt's symphonic fantasy to Dante's Inferno, which was the most interesting work on the programme in terms of novelty and its subject [9], turned out not to belong to the renowned pianist and composer's finest works. In the first movement, which illustrates all the horrors of hell, there is a lot of imagination, a lot of sombre colouring in accordance with the subject, and it is also abundant in loud and powerful external effects, but it all betrays a lack of inventiveness, of novelty in the principal motifs and organic cohesion in the way these are combined together. The central episode of this movement, which depicts the tormented love of Francesca and Paolo, is not devoid of warmth and passion, but it is far too much like the many other similar episodes in Liszt's works, especially the middle section of his Waltz to Lenau's Faust [10]. As for the second movement, which presents listeners with a tone-painting of the Catholic purgatory, it must be said that, in spite of the felicitously devised effect of a female chorus suddenly resounding in the middle of a symphonic work, it is poor in content, long-winded, and terribly boring.

The final chorus from Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust did not produce any impression at all, partly because the performance was not really up to standard, but partly also because of a dryness of style which is otherwise quite uncharacteristic of Schumann.

The most gratifying overall impression at this concert came from Mozart's now almost a-hundred-year-old overture to Die Zauberflöte. This is one of those unfading wonders of art in which a master of genius constructs, from insignificant material, a sumptuously beautiful and formally perfect musical edifice which is inexhaustibly rich in wonderful details. What a chasm separates this overture from the other symphonic work on the programme: Liszt's fantasy. Here you have a simplicity and modesty in the way the task is approached that, thanks to the immediate force of creativity, yields the richest fruits, whilst there you are struck by the disproportion between the composer's inventive faculty and the tremendousness and boldness of the task he has undertaken. Here you find logical coherence between the musical ideas, formal seamlessness, and unassuming robustness in their development and elaboration; over there you find subtle calculation, a morbid pursuit of staggering effects, and an awkward angularity in the combination of the individual parts and movements.

Mr Auer, who played Beethoven's Violin Concerto, achieved a great success. This artist after all also had to struggle against the overwhelming memories of Laub's interpretation which listeners were inevitably seized by on hearing the opening notes of a work which the late virtuoso so often played here. Mr Auer acquitted himself honourably in this struggle. He plays with great expressivity and highly developed technical precision, and his phrasing is distinguished by fine thoughtfulness and poetic spirit.

The Russian Musical Society's third series of chamber music matinées is coming to an end. At the second matinée we heard a fine pianist, Madame Batalina, who is a former pupil of Mr Klindworth, and also the Conservatory students Messrs Kotek, Barcewicz, Arends, and Brandukov, whose performance of Beethoven's E minor quartet riveted everyone's attention, so full of artistic sensitivity and mature understanding was their playing.

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Musical Chronicle (The Third Week of the Concert Season)' in ČW.
  2. Bernhard Heinrich Romberg (1767–1841), German composer and virtuoso cellist. It is not clear which of Romberg's numerous concerto works for cello and orchestra Davydov played at this concert — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. The title role in Friedrich von Flotow's 1847 opera Martha, oder Der Markt von Richmondnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. This "Literary and musical soirée with the participation of Madames Vasilyeva, Kadmina, and Yermolova, as well as Messrs Hřímalý, Konev, Nikolayev, Fitzenhagen, Taneyev, and Sheremetevsky" took place in the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility in Moscow on 17/29 March 1875.
  5. See TH 286, TH 287, and TH 300.
  6. Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814–1865), famous Moravian-Jewish violinist and composer — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Mignon (1866), an opera in three acts by the French composer Ambroise Thomas (1811–1896), whom Tchaikovsky discusses ironically in TH 272.
  8. Adrien-François Servais (1807–1866), French cello virtuoso and composer of cello works, described as the "Paganini du violoncelle" by Berlioz — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. It is worth noting that less than a year after this concert, in February 1876 Tchaikovsky himself was thinking about using the Inferno from Dante's Divine Comedy for a projected opera (TH 212). Although he had to abandon that idea, later in that same year he would compose his great orchestral fantasia Francesca da Riminitranslator's note.
  10. Liszt's famous Mephisto Waltz No. 1, composed in 1859–62.