The tsar, the rock and the firebird: a Russian finale to the Hallé’s summer season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky: Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 22.7.2021; streamed from 29.7.2021. (CS)

The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder

Rimsky-KorsakovThe Tale of Tsar Saltan, Suite
RachmaninovThe Rock
StravinskyThe Firebird, Suite (1945)

The six concerts which formed the Hallé’s summer series came to a colourful close with a trio of Russian fairy-tales, myths and legends, conducted by Sir Mark Elder at the Bridgewater Hall.  It is one of three concerts in the series which have been released as streamed broadcasts at and which will be available for three months from the date broadcast.

Rimsky-Korsakov frequently paid tribute to Russia’s ‘national poet’, Alexander Pushkin, in his music: more than twenty of his songs set Pushkin’s poems and in his choral works and operas, he repeatedly drew his texts from Pushkin’s writings.  The composer also loved a Russian fairy-tale!  And, he developed kaleidoscopic instrumentations to bring such fantasies and myths to life, as the orchestral suite which he drew from his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, exemplifies.

The opera was composed in 1899, celebrating the centenary of Pushkin’s birth.  Its libretto, adapted from Pushkin’s skazka, tells of the marriage of Tsar Saltan to the youngest of three sisters.  She bears him a son, Prince Guidon, but when Saltan is absent at the wars, the Tsarina’s jealous sisters send word that she has borne him a monster, and commands that she and the child be put in a barrel and sent out to sea.  Stranded on a desert island, Guidon, saves a swan from attack by a kite, is transformed into a bumble bee so that he can take a smarting revenge on his wicked aunts, and is proclaimed a prince by the grateful city of Ledenets.  The city has three wonders: a magic squirrel that extracts emeralds from nuts of gold and sings Russian folksongs; thirty-three magic knights who rise from the sea; and a Swan-Princess.  Saltan hears of the island, sets sail to seal a ‘happy ever after’ ending.

The three ‘musical pictures’ which form the Suite – and which were in fact performed shortly before first performance of the opera itself – depict Tsar Saltan setting off for the battlefield, the oceanic ordeal of the Tsarina Militrissa and Prince Guidon, and the three wonder of Ledenets.  Seated aloft, the Hallé’s brass issued a rousing call to attention, their breezy fanfare marking each stage of the tale.

Elder immediately conjured the music’s charming innocence.  The martial rhythms were taut but never four-square.  Woodwind were nimble, a cheeky rejoinder to the boisterous but agile bass swagger as the Tsar sets out war, his confidence captured by the relaxed lyricism of the strings.  The lower strings recreated the surge of the deep waters on which the Tsarina and her son drift, at the start of the second ‘picture’, prickly violin pizzicatos and stirring timpani rumbles telling of menace and storms.  The stabbing chromatic slithers of high woodwind and violins could not be assuaged by occasional doleful lyricism from the clarinet and, later, the horn, though eventually the white horses were tamed to a lapping lull.  And, in the final movement, the music drew its pictures and told its stories with enchanting clarity: the solo piccolo delicately crunched the nuts of gold, elegant hints of the knights’ arrival exploded into an orchestral array of their golden-helmeted glory, with leisurely grace the oboe-swan floated into view inspiring upswells of passionate feeling.  This was lovely playing from the Hallé’s, luxurious of hue yet crystalline of texture.

Sir Mark Elder

Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera is a late work, written nine years before the composer’s death.  Rachmaninov’s The Rock represents a young man’s voice, composed as it was in 1893 when Rachmaninov was just twenty years old.  The Rock is similarly inspired by Russian literature – a short story by Chekhov, ‘On the Road’, which was published on Christmas Day 1886 in the St. Petersburg newspaper, The New Time – but, as Elder himself explains, it is less pictorial, more impressionistic than Rimsky-Korsakov’s approach to symphonic story-telling.  It does, however, display its composer’s precocious command of orchestral colour, and if there is some repetitiousness and a less than masterful melodic stamp, then it has a driving energy which Elder and the Hallé marshalled to exciting dramatic effect.

Chekhov’s story presents an impassioned conversation in a country inn during a winter snow-storm between a man who is resting there for the night with his young daughter and a young noblewoman on her way to visit a nearby family property.  The man opens his soul to his fellow-traveller, especially about his romantic experiences; she is touched by his charm and attracted by his passionate beliefs, but, life must go on …

The Hallé’s cellos and double basses established a dark, brooding mood at the start, before string tremolos and perky woodwind motifs injected light and life.  As the emotions and drama pressed forwards, Elder made the music feel very ‘human’, as if the soul of Russia itself was unfolding.  With the first Borodin-like melodic expansion there came warmth and joy, other passages fizzed with an ecstatic wildness or pulsed with chilling tension, and there were moments of glowing tutti rapture; but, despite the romantic swooning those initial dark surges never felt far away.  At times there is a lot ‘going on’ in this tone poem, and Elder made sure each gesture had its place and its presence was felt.  The tempos were forward-leaning but never overly swift and the progress towards the sumptuous climax was persuasive.  Thereafter, on a bed of shimmering string shivers, the solo horn-calls seemed eerie and strange, a haunting cry from afar which slips mysteriously into the silence.

The major work in the programme came last: the Suite that Stravinsky made in 1945 from his 1910 ballet, The Firebird, in which he reconsidered, with an economical and judicious eye, some of the instrumentation that he had deployed in an earlier 1919 version.  The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first large-scale work for orchestra and, commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, his first original score for the Ballets Russes.  Russian legend is again the source: the Firebird, a powerful good spirit whose feathers supposedly convey beauty and protection on the earth, helps Prince Ivan Tsarevich rescue the princess he loves from the clutches of the evil sorcerer, Kaschei.  The score has not a little debt to Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s mentor and friend, not least in the vivid opalescence of its instrumentation.  But, the musical voice is Stravinsky’s own, as Diaghilev recognised when The Firebird opened on 25th June 1910, commenting: ‘Mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity.’

The Hallé musicians’ enjoyment of the musical narrative was evident from the first, when, in the depths of night Ivan Tsarevich stumbles upon Kaschei’s magic garden.  The colour, energy, excitement and anticipation of the music conjured to mind the image of a child’s face, wide-eyed with wonder at the exploits and adventures of a fabulous tale.  Elder, a transfixing narrator, made sure that no detail was lost; no colour insipid, however delicate.  Solos sparkled, consoled and beguiled; tutti episodes cohered, despite the challenges of the socially distanced arrangement.  If anything, the gentle, mischievous and romantic outshone the dark and dramatic: the Lullaby which follows the Infernal Dance, was mysterious and magical, while the Dance itself lacked a little of what can seem a terrifying violence.  Here, I missed that slightly ‘unhinged’ quality that the syncopated hammering evokes.  But, the serene moments were beautifully finessed.

This was a terrific end to the Hallé’s season.  The fairy-tale would end, ‘And, they all lived happily ever after’.  And, this concert closed with the satisfying despatch of the Tsarina’s envious, evil sisters who were sent packing by the sharp stings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s whizzing, whirling bumblebee.

Claire Seymour

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