Tugan Sokhiev conducts Rachmaninov, Borodin and Prokofiev

12 Jan 2019

Berliner Philharmoniker
Tugan Sokhiev

Choir of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Vesna (Spring), cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra, op. 20 (20 min.)

    Vasily Ladyuk baritone, Choir of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow, Valery Borisov chorus master

  • Alexander Borodin
    Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances (original version with choir) (16 min.)

    Choir of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow, Valery Borisov chorus master

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Alexander Nevsky, cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, op. 78 (43 min.)

    Agunda Kulaeva mezzo-soprano, Choir of the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow, Valery Borisov chorus master

  • free

    Tugan Sokhiev in conversation with Andreas Ottensamer (17 min.)

Tugan Sokhiev, music director of the Bolshoi Theatre, presents an all-Russian programme. He brings with him the chorus of his Moscow opera house, which participates in all three works on the programme: it opens with the famous Polovtsian Dances, which Alexander Borodin conceived as a dance and chorus scene for his unfinished opera Prince Igor. Borodin, who enjoyed success in his main profession as a chemist, belonged to the composer circle of the so-called “Mighty Handful”, whose aim was to distance itself from the models of Western European music and establish its own Russian national style. Borodin’s opera is based on the medieval Lay of Igor’s Host and tells of the military conflicts of the Russians led by Prince Igor and the people of the Polovtsians. In his Polovtsian Dances, with its unmistakable oriental influences, the composer created an impressive scene which takes place in the war camp at night: the female voices begin tenderly, ingratiatingly, with almost unearthly beauty, while the men join them in an archaic and combative manner, finally uniting in an ecstatic final song.

A mediaeval Russian national hero is also at the centre of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cantata op. 78: Alexander Nevsky, who with his army won the decisive victory over the Teutonic Knights during the legendary battle on the frozen Lake Peipus in the 13th century. Prokofiev had originally composed the music for director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 historical film Alexander Nevsky. When the filming was completed, he transformed the film music into a seven-movement cantata which traces the main stages of the film’s action, especially the famous battle on the frozen lake which is considered the key scene of the entire work.

In contrast, Sergei Rachmaninov’s cantata Spring deals with a very private drama. It describes the painful feelings of a betrayed husband who, during the dark winter months, seeks revenge on his unfaithful wife and plans to kill her. However, the arrival of spring calms his anger, and he forgives his wife. In this almost operatic work, Rachmaninov, who had just overcome a severe creative crisis with the help of therapy, and moreover was also newly married, created an impressive musical panorama of human moods and emotions.

Medieval Heroes, a Betrayed Husband and a Battle on the Ice

Notes on Works by Borodin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev

From Paris to the world: Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances

As founder and guiding spirit of the circle of five composers who went down in music history as “The Mighty Handful” (or “The Five”), the St Petersburg music critic Vladimir Stasov frequently directed the interest of his protégés to fairy tales, legends and historical material in which they could find inspiration for their works. For example, in 1869 he called Alexander Borodin’s attention to The Lay of Igor’s Host: an anonymous, 218-line medieval epic poem depicting the military campaign of Prince Igor Sviatoslavich of Novgorod-Seversk against the khan of the Kipchaks in 1185. Borodin wrote his own libretto based on the poem and enthusiastically set to work on the opera, but when he died 18 years later Knyaz’ Igor’ (Prince Igor)was still unfinished. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov expanded and completed the fragment for the premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 4 November 1890. The splendid ballet music from the second act had been completed, though, and became famous under the title Polovtsian Dances after Sergei Diaghilev presented it with his Ballets Russes in the choreography of Michel Fokine on 19 May 1909 during his fourth “Russian season” at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

“Polovtsian” or “Polovtsi” (“inhabitants of the steppes”) is the ancient name of the Muslim Turkic peoples of the Kipchaks, or Cumans, who lived primarily on the Volga and in the steppes of Ukraine during the 11th and 12th centuries until they were gradually driven further west by the Mongols and Tatars. Their khans repeatedly waged wars against the Kievan Rus’, but Igor’s campaign became especially well-known from The Lay of Igor’s Host.

In the Polovtsian Dances Borodin does not quote original melodies or dances but works with characteristic woodwind solos (clarinet, oboe and English horn), scales and harmonies – open fifths, augmented seconds, chromatic melismas and drone-like ostinatos – which were regarded as symbols of “oriental” exoticism throughout Europe.

Blossoms instead of murder: Rachmaninov’s cantata Spring

Just as the triumphant march of the Polovtsian Dances through the world’s concert halls began with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes performance in Paris, Sergei Rachmaninov’s cantata Vesna (Spring) was also brought to the French capital by Diaghilev. For the five concerts billed as “Russian Music Through the Ages” which the legendary impresario presented during his second Russian season at the Paris Opéra in May 1907, the 63-year-old Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov even came to conduct several concerts. The Parisian public heard two other prominent Russians: Rachmaninov and the bass Feodor Chaliapin. In a concert conducted by Camille Chevillard, the cantata and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto were on the programme, with the composer himself at the piano.

The literary source for the cantata is the poem Zelyonyi shum (“Green Rustle”) by Nikolai Nekrasov, published in 1863, which describes the desire for revenge of a betrayed husband. All winter long he thinks he hears a voice in the howling of the wind, calling to him: “Kill the faithless one!” The knife is ready – until at the close the “green rustle” of the approaching spring dissuades him from his murderous plans. The fact that the 28-year-old Rachmaninov set these lines in January and February 1902 – a few months before his marriage to Natalia Satina – and that Nekrasov’s adulteress is also called Natalia may seem somewhat disconcerting. On the other hand, the music, with its naturalistic, mystical E major at the beginning and the end, exudes an altogether positive atmosphere, which is rather unusual for the composer, who had an inclination towards the depressive key of D minor and ostinato Dies Irae quotations. The rocking quaver motif, with which the bassoons, cellos and double basses begin the cantata in Allegro moderato above a muted tremolo in the violas, runs like a central thread through the entire work, which is quite operatic in style.

By one of the “most wonderful film composers”: Prokofiev’s music for Alexander Nevsky

Sergei Prokofiev had already composed his first film score for Alexander Fainzimmer’s Lieutenant Kijé in 1933 when Sergei Eisenstein commissioned him to write the music for his Alexander Nevsky in 1938. The director had previously worked with other composers – Edmund Meisel for Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) and Gavril Popov for Bezhin Meadow(1935-1937), which remained a fragment – but in the end was obviously not happy with their works. Eisenstein himself commented on how different the collaboration with Prokofiev was six years later on Ivan the Terrible: “Nothing ephemeral, nothing accidental. Everything clear, exact, perfect. That is why Prokofiev is not only one of the greatest composers of our time, but, in my opinion, also the most wonderful film composer.”

Like Borodin’s Prince Igor, Alexander Nevskyalso depicts an event from early Russian history: the battle of the Novgorod princes against the Teutonic knights who had invaded Russia, plundering, murdering and pillaging under the sign of the cross. Although the Mongols – under whose yoke Russia had already suffered during many years of occupation – had met with little resistance until then, on 5 April 1242 Alexander finally managed to unite the feuding Russian princes and with a combined army lured the troops of the Teutonic knights onto the frozen Lake Peipus, situated between Estonia and Russia, where the knights broke through the ice with their horses and heavy armour and were decisively defeated. The fact that, against the backdrop of the impending war, the film was highly charged politically was also obvious in the epilogue: “He who comes with a sword dies by the sword. On this Russia stands and will stand forever.” It is no wonder that the film, which had its premiere at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on 23 November 1938, vanished again from Soviet cinemas immediately after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on 24 August 1939. The same fate also befell the seven-movement cantata, op. 78, which Prokofiev had adapted from his film score and conducted the premiere of in Moscow on 17 May 1939.

The film music and cantata correspond with each other almost note for note, although several specific effects from the soundtrack had to be altered. That included, in particular, the technique of “inverted instrumentation”, which Prokofiev had devised expressly for the recording of the film. For example, he placed the bassoon directly in front of the microphone but had the louder brass play from 20 metres away, shifting it into the acoustical background. Particularly effective and impressive was the congruence between Eisenstein’s montage technique, assembled from innumerable cuts, and the music. That is demonstrated especially in the fifth movement of the cantata, which provides the musical accompaniment to the battle on Lake Peipus. The first film sequence lasts a good seven minutes and consists of 54 camera angles with lengths ranging from 2 to 22 seconds. In this movement Prokofiev succeeds in building up an atmospheric tension that never seems “collaged” or “montaged”, yet captures the visual rhythm of the film cut by cut. In the second section – the actual battle – the sinister “Peregrinus” chant of the Teutonic knights, an ostinato equestrian theme and a folk song theme associated with Nevsky’s army form a kind of triple counterpoint, giving this movement of the cantata – at approximately 13 minutes, the longest – a dramaturgical force so powerful that one no longer needs images to be caught up in its wake.

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Tugan Sokhiev hails from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, and studied with Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg Conservatory, while also attending the conducting classes of Yuri Temirkanov. In 2000 he won the main prize in the Third International Prokofiev Competition, an award that led to his appointment as principal conductor of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the North Ossetia State Philharmonic. He attracted international attention in 2002 conducting Puccini’s La Bohème at the Welsh National Opera. Already the following year he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and in 2004 at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges. Sokhiev has been music director of the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse since the autumn of 2008. In addition, he took on the position of music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin from 2012 until summer 2016. Since 2014, he has been music director and chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre and Orchestra in Moscow. Furthermore, he regularly conducts at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. As a much sought-after guest conductor all over the world he has worked with the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw and the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Tugan Sokhiev made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2010; he last appeared with the orchestra in May 2018 conducting works by Prokofiev, Beethoven and Mussogsky. He will return to the orchestra in June to conduct the last concert of the season at Berlin’s Waldbühne.

The Russian mezzo-soprano Agunda Kulaeva also comes from Vladikavkaz. She initially trained as a choral conductor at the conservatory in Rostov, and subsequently studied singing at the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow. In 2005, she made her debut in Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Bolshoi and since then, she has become one of the opera house’s leading mezzo-sopranos, appearing in roles such as Polina (Queen ofSpades), Konschakovna (Prince Igor) and the title role in Carmen. She also performs regularly at the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow; further guest engagements have taken her to Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Theater an der Wien, the Cité de la Musique in Paris and the Cultural Center in Hong Kong. In 2014 she made her debut at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York in the role of Lyubasha (The Tsar’s Bride). In addition to her operatic work, Agunda Kulaeva has also made a name for herself on the concert stage; she now makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Vasily Ladyuk attended the Sveshnikov Moscow Choral School, subsequently studied singing and conducting at the local choral academy, and attended master classes at la Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and Houston Grand Opera. In 2004, he began his career as a baritone at the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow. In 2007, he became a regular guest soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre. In 2005, Vasily Ladyuk won three international vocal competitions: the Tenor Viñas Contest in Barcelona, Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, and the Mt. Fuji International Opera Competition in Shizuoka. Guest engagements have taken him to the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London – where he was acclaimed in the title role of Eugene Onegin – the Opéra national de Paris and the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. His repertoire also includes roles such as Marcello (La Bohème), Germont (La traviata), Harlequin (Ariadne on Naxos) and Belcore (L’elisir dʼamore). This is his first guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The chorus of the Bolshoi Theatre is part of the famous Moscow opera and ballet theatre. The ensemble already gained renown throughout Russia at the end of the 19th century while under the musical direction of Ulrich Avranek, and at the beginning of the 20th, it appeared with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. With its current 120 members, the choir participates in all opera productions of the Bolshoi Theatre and also performs the vocal parts in ballets such as Le Corsaire, The Nutcracker and Spartacus. In addition, it has an extensive concert repertoire which includes works by Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev among others, plus sacred music. Since 2003, the musical direction has been in the hands of Valery Borisov. On the concert stage, the chorus has also performed under the direction of conductors such as Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Alberto Zedda, Jiří Bělohlávek and Vassily Sinaisky. The singers’ tour appearances have included Spain and Portugal in 2003, and Aix-en-Provence in 2017. In 2005, the Russian national theatre award, the Golden Mask, presented the chorus with a special prize for its contribution to productions of Macbeth and The Flying Dutchman. Following an a cappella programme in the chamber music hall on 8 January this year, the chorus now appears in symphonic concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

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