• Borodin: Overture and Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor;
  • Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead;
    • Conductor: Nicholas Zaklama.
  • Saint-Saens: Symphony No.3 "avec orgue" (The "Organ" Symphony).
    • Conductor: Michael Brown;
    • Organ: Nicholas Zaklama.

Wesley Methodist Church.
30th November 2000.

Alexander Porfir'yevich Borodin (1833-87)
Overture and Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor.

Alexander Borodin is a strange figure in Russian music because, unlike many of his contemporaries, Borodin managed to maintain a reputation both as a respected scientist and as a serious composer during his professional life. At one end, Borodin was a member of "The Five," and influential and well respected group of composers whose other members were Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Cui and Balakirev: at the other, Borodin was, from 1863 a full-time Professor of Chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy of St. Petersburg. Teaching left Borodin little time to compose, but many of his works (such as the Second String Quartet or the pieces the W.C.S.O. play tonight) have retained a place as classics in the repertoire.

Borodin began working on Prince Igor in 1869, just after the first performance of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The Opera was to be in Three Acts and based on Stasov's story of the capture of Prince Igor by the Polovetsians, which allowed him to use much "oriental" folk music, which was very popular at the time. However, work was hampered by teaching and the fact that Borodin attempted to write both libretto and music at the same time. At his death the opera remained seriously incomplete and Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov stepped in and orchestrated the whole opera and ordered the scenes. The first performance took place on 26th May 1890 in St. Petersburg with Igor Stravinsky's father taking one of the main roles!

Overture from Prince Igor (orch. Glazunov).

The Overture is perhaps the least original part of the opera, due to the fact that it was assembled by Glazunov from the opera's major themes after the composer's death. The overture starts slowly and broodingly but, soon, the mood lightens and builds, through the use of layered brass bugle calls, into the first theme, where unison strings and woodwind burst into a chorus of excited revelry- the actual music comes from Act I and forms part of a raucous feast held by the evil Prince Galitsky. The music returns to a more somber mode as a plaintive horn solo introduces Konchakovna and Vladimir's (the operas two troubled lovers) theme. This theme is then augmented by the violins who rise up from nowhere to reach a passionate climax.

However, the mood soon becomes lightened as the rather drunken 'celli introduce another raucous party scene, in which the woodwind are used to great effect to intimate the hiccupping and belching of the party guests (indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov was later to use this effect in The Golden Cock, in the famous Hiccupping Song). However, the mood changes as the woodwind introduce a staccato theme that builds back into a repeat of the first theme. The tension builds as the brass calls become more prominent and the general sense of excitement is brought to a final jubilant climax by the final 20 bars, where the orchestra was originally commanded by Glazunov to "race to the end as if your very lives depend upon it."

Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov).

Originally there was a short interlude at the start of Act II, accompanied by a chorus of Polovetsian women. However, when Diaghalev came to the west and produced Prince Igor for the Ballet russes in Paris, the interlude was extended into choral ballet- "The Polvetsian Dances"- due to the popularity of ballet with Parisian audiences. There are two dances (No.8 and No.17).

No. 8:
In this scene a group of agitated Polovetsian women run into the court of the evil Prince Galitsky to ask him to release a friend, who has been forcibly taken away. The mood is decidedly agitated as the girls burst in and dance around the assembled courtiers, with the sense of excitement is heightened by the use of pizzicato strings and flute/piccolo trills. As the girls approach Galitsky there is a great sense of anticipation but Galitsky rebuffs them and the girls run from the court to the laughter of the courtiers.
Ironically, Rimsky-Korsakov uses the Clarinet to great effect, although his original intention was allegedly to embarrass a Clarinettist against whom he held a grudge by writing a ferocious solo part!

No. 17:
This scene begins Act II of the opera and represents the actual major part of the Dances, as extended for the Ballet russes. The Polovetsian Maidens sing and dance in an attempt to entertain Konchakovna, daughter of the Khan Konchak. Konchakovna is deep in thought and does not respond. The scene, thus opens with a slow introduction which develops into the first major theme, a quiet and expressive oboe motif, which is interlaced with a more serious cor anglais countermelody, both supported by a delicate harp and pizzicato string accompaniment. These two themes are then repeated by with gusto by the strings but gradually die away into the original oboe and cor anglais themes.

Suddenly the mood changes and the clarinet introduces an oriental-based folk song, full of off beat rhythms. This is taken up by the other members of the upper woodwind whilst the lower woodwind introduce a starkly Russian countermelody. The scene erupts into general jubilation as the strings take over the clarinet's tune and the countermelody is taken up by a swaggering soli for the trombone section.

The next part is one of general jubilation- building from a single timpani to the huge entry of the full orchestra it is also a scene of bare contrasts. The Polovetsian Chorus sing here of the joys of their homeland and of their Prince and this is certainly represented, as Leonard Bernstein once said, in "orchestral writing of great simplicity which truly packs a punch."

The tension is raised in the next section (marked presto) as saltando strings accompany a fast interlaced passage of soli for the clarinet and oboe. This, again, is thought to be another cruel trick by Rimsky-Korsakov! The theme is then developed by the full orchestra into a brilliant set of running scales, described by the musicologist Mark Lane as the best example of the Russian "Round Dancing" ever to have been committed to paper.

The section interrupted by the return of the opening oboe and cor anglais motif, this time augmented by horn and 'cello countermelodies. To this Rimsky-Korsakov asks the flutes and clarinets to perform a tricky augmentation of the theme causing a brilliant layering of interwoven themes and rhythms. However, the presto theme returns, only to be replaced by a repeat of the oriental-theme by the full orchestra which builds through the use of syncopation and running passages to a triumphant finale, which, at the original performance, was followed by a 10 minute standing ovation from a Paris audience famed for its indifference!

Sergey Vasil'yevich Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
The Isle of the Dead.

Throughout his life Rachmaninov was obsessed my death and most of his work can be seen as a poetic fin de siŤcle amplification of his feelings upon the subject. One of Rachmaninov's favourite quotations was from the opening lines of John Donnes' Holy Sonnet:
"I run to Death and death meets me as fast, and all my Pleasures are like Yesterday."

The Isle of the Dead, written in 1910, was inspired by an exhibition of gloomily atmospheric paintings of the same title by BŲcklin and allowed Rachmaninov carte blanche to explore the hauntingly mysterious and romantic connotations of his obsession. The piece also marks the start of a transition in Rachmaninov's composing career from the Rachmaninov of the Second Concerto and the First and Second Symphonies (although some of the most passionate moments in the Isle of the Dead are reminiscent of these earlier works) to the more rhythmically daring and, occasionally, discordant, Rachmaninov of works such as the Variations on a Theme by Paganini and the Symphonic Dances.

The majority of the piece is 5/8, a time signature rarely used before 1910, and the bar is sub-divided into either 2+3 or 3+2 to intimate the waves lapping at the shores of the Isle of the Dead. The first section of the piece opens quietly and eerily in the depths of the orchestra with pizzicato Double Bass and 'cello supported by the Bass Clarinet and Contra-Bassoon. Charon, the Ferryman of the River Styx, enters the scene, with the movement of the oars represented by a plaintiff cor anglais solo, in which Rachmaninov uses the uneasiness 2+3: 3+2 to great effect.

This motto continues as the boat travels through the thick fog, with some evocative and impressionistic woodwind writing, and rises to an anticlimax as the Island comes into view (represented by a brass chord that comes from nowhere but dies almost immediately back into the orchestral ether). However, this recurring motto builds again, but not before Rachmaninov uses other effects- such as an eery solo for two solo violins and a sorrowful oboe solo- to emphasise the uneasiness and ethereal nature of the tableau.

A sense of agitation ensues, as the dead person being carried by Charon (thought to be a representation of Rachmaninov himself) starts to reminisce about the life he has left. But the mood is suddenly changed by the entry of a wistful 'cello theme (supported by the horns and trilling wind) which represents the recollection of earthly pleasures. However, the violins reinstate the sense of agitation with painful down-bows that lead to a revised repeat of the opening 5/8 motto. However, the strings and brass bring out a sense of bitterness which starts to crescendo to a huge climax that is short-lived and a mournful flute solo brings us to the central section.

In the central section, in 3, Rachmaninov using fragments from the First and Second Symphonies to intimate the rekindling of earthly pleasures. However, behind this rather delicate opening lies a sinister brass motive, which is used cleverly to modulate the tune from A-minor to the somewhat distant key of Eb-major. In this section- a passionate, and intense reminder of the power and pathos which Rachmaninov could instil into his writing- the sound builds into a huge climax where it seems that all that has gone before is nothing but a bad dream. However, from this section there is a move back to agitation with the strings and brass constantly moving the emotive to new heights before the entry of the full trombone section almost causes total chaos to ensue.

The range of emotions is then increased yet again as Rachmaninov sets orchestral sections against each other- the violins fight each other, the horns do likewise, the trumpets vie for attention. Suddenly the violins, playing in unison push the piece forward to a massive climax, marked fff, which is followed by three huge orchestral unison blasts that signify the realisation that in death is finality and there is no going back.

The third sections returns to themes from the first section as the dead person, represented by solo violin, oboe, clarinet and bass clarinet, takes his leave from Charon and moves away from the River Styx into the Isle of the Dead. Charon then starts to row away, supported by doleful woodwind solos, and the orchestra is instructed to diminuendo al niente as the piece finishes in almost silence with the waters lapping against the shores of the Isle of the Dead.

Camille Saint-SaŽns (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 "avec orgue" (The "Organ" Symphony)

The Third Symphony (The "Organ") is a work of his middle years, commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society. Saint-SaŽns himself conducted the premiŤre in London on May 19, 1886, and was also soloist at the same concert in his Fourth Piano Concerto. The Third Symphony is unique in its formal structure, since the score shows only two movements. This is somewhat deceiving, however, since each movement has a major change about midway through, each with complete alteration of both key and tempo marking. In effect, the second half of the first movement serves as a slow movement, while the first half of the second movement is a kind of scherzo. The discussions which follow will show these divisions.

First Movement, Part One: Adagio/Allegro moderato The brief (eleven measure) introductory Adagio is important in prefiguring two vital elements of the music which follows it. The very first note in violins is foreign to the key of C minor, but predicts the key of the second half of this movement which is D-flat major. And the melodic fragments heard in the woodwinds anticipate the first principal subject of the Allegro moderato which ensues. This Allegro moderato opens with a scurrying sixteenth note figure in strings. This figure serves as background for the thematic elements and is absent only rarely during the entire Allegro moderato, although it shifts occasionally to the woodwinds. The melodic parts are notable for their pervasive syncopation. Freely chromatic harmony is notable throughout, often marked by three melodic semi- tones heard in a variety of contexts, which are remindful of Tristan and Isolde which was much discussed at about the time Saint-Saens was writing the Symphony.

First Movement, Part Two: Poco adagio The organ enters for the first time here, and is prominent during the entire Adagio. Its part is largely chordal, supporting the melodic parts in the remainder of the instrumentation.

Second Movement, Part One: Allegro moderato A jovial first theme comprised mostly of a rhythmic unit of four shorts and a long (o o o o ------) is stated first in upper strings. Fragmentation and variation of this unit furnish much of the subsequent material. The resemblance to a scherzo movement is fortified by a contrasting middle section (trio?) which features the piano injected sporadically on brilliant runs. After this middle section, the first theme returns.

Second Movement, Part Two: Maestoso/Allegro Both the organ and the piano (optionally 4 hands) are used in this brilliant finale. A massive C major chord in organ launches the first episode, a short fugal passage shared by strings and woodwinds,. There follows a short passage dominated by arpeggiated figuration in piano, accompanying simple melodic parts in the strings. Eventually the brass choir injects a brisk rhythmic figure that propels movements toward the Allegro sections. This Allegro is the true finale of the symphony and is set in motion by another fugal opening. A variety of materials, including several more brief fugal entries lead the work to a smashing close.

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