Performance Wednesday, October 26, 2011 | 8 PM

Cancelled: Anna Netrebko
Elena Bashkirova

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Anna Netrebko, with great regret, has cancelled this performance. After singing seven performances of the extremely taxing title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena at The Metropolitan Opera, she has been ordered to go on 10 days of vocal rest by her doctor.

Ticketholders who purchased tickets for this performance will receive automatic refunds. Ticketholders with any further questions may contact CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800.
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The Program


About the Composer

Rimsky-Korsakov is known in America today primarily for his color-saturated orchestral tone poems Scheherazade, Russian Easter Overture, and Capriccio espagnol, as well as for his edited and re-orchestrated versions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin’s Prince Igor, now somewhat out of favor. In Russia, he is known more properly for his own operas, which reveal the scope of his talents and his imagination much more fully. And he was a prolific and highly gifted songwriter, though his songs are virtually never heard outside his native land—a situation Anna Netrebko is thankfully trying to correct.

Like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov specialized in the romance, the most popular song style in 19th-century Russia. This genteel genre was designed primarily for singing in cultivated Russian households and had little to do with the rougher nationalistic works that Rimsky-Korsakov’s colleagues in the “Mighty Five,” especially Mussorgsky, were creating. We do, however, hear in some of the songs the exotic “oriental” effects featured in Russian nationalistic music when it explored the Asian side of the country’s heritage.

There was another quality Rimsky-Korsakov adopted from the nationalists in his songs: his clear and respectful setting of the poems he chose. Unlike Tchaikovsky, he tended to set the words in a through-composed manner, typically avoiding strophic musical repetition and shunning word repetitions unless they occurred in the original verse. And in contrast to Tchaikovsky’s elaborate piano parts, he preferred understated accompaniments, placing the emphasis on the singer and her declamation of the words.

A Closer Listen

“What it is, in the still of the night” is the first of three settings of poetry by Apollon Maykov, a poet whose verse fueled a creative explosion in the summer of 1897, when Rimsky-Korsakov composed more than 40 songs in a Schubert-like frenzy. In this subtle song, the poet touchingly addresses himself, refusing to reveal even in his verse the source of his inspiration.

“Forgive me! Remember not the downcast days” from 1883 is, for the Romantic era, a surprisingly positive response to a lost romance, refusing to wallow in regret. Tchaikovsky set this same poem by Nikolay Nekrasov three years later.

Two more songs from the prolific year 1897 are “It was not the wind, blowing from the heights” and “The lark’s song rings more clearly,” both set to verse by Aleksey Tolstoy, a distant relative of the novelist. Nature imagery unites these songs, the first tender in its gratitude, the second bursting with the energy of spring’s arrival (a theme running strongly throughout Russian art).

Rimsky-Korsakov was only 22 in 1866 when he set “On Georgia’s hills” by Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin. At this time, he was pursuing a career as a naval officer and was basically an amateur musician, composing songs and piano pieces for his social circle. Nevertheless, this song is far superior to a conventional salon song; it sets Pushkin’s beautiful words with great sensitivity and restraint. Pushkin created this poem in 1829 when he was in Georgia and separated from his young fiancée, to whom he’d recently become engaged.

“The line of flying clouds grows thin” is a much later and more mature Pushkin song from 1897. At the age of 21, Pushkin had left St. Petersburg because of his radical ideas and was living in the Crimea, hence the reference to southern waves, which we hear in the piano. This is one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest songs, in which voice and piano merge perfectly to create a profoundly haunting atmosphere.

“To the realm of rose and wine,” “Zuleika’s Song,” and “Captivated by the rose, the nightingale” all revolve around sensuous Persian-inspired poetry set to equally sensuous music in the composer’s best “oriental” style. The first is based on Afanasy Fet’s translation of Georg Daumer’s German imitation of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez. Ivan Kozlov wrote the verse for “Zuleika’s Song” for his translation of Lord Byron’s The Bride of Abydos, passing it off as Byron’s. A very early work from 1866, “Enslaved by the Rose, the Nightingale” is Rimsky-Korsakov’s most thoroughly orientalized song and closes with a marvelously virtuosic wordless vocalise.

The final two songs, “The Nymph” and “Dream on a Summer’s night,” are the last two songs Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, again setting poetry by Apollon Maykov. The first song, about a Russian Lorelei who lures but fortunately does not kill unwary sailors, was composed for the Lithuanian lyric-coloratura Nadezhda Zabela, whom Rimsky-Korsakov considered his ideal soprano and for whom he wrote the title role in The Tsar’s Bride. In turn, “Summer’s Night Dream” was dedicated to her husband, the powerful Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel. In this most outgoing and dramatic of the composer’s songs, a virginal girl dreams of a passionate encounter with a nocturnal intruder and then by morning’s light wonders if it were really a dream. Here, Rimsky-Korsakov lets an unusually prominent and harmonically fascinating piano part paint the feverish atmosphere, beginning with the first uncanny, shimmering notes.

—Jan E. Bedell

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


About the Composer

As a born melodist, Tchaikovsky created instrumental themes that seemed designed for singing. Yet he is far better known for his operas than for the approximately 100 songs he wrote throughout his career. As biographer David Brown has pointed out, it is not only the language barrier that has stood in the way, but also the fact that Tchaikovsky wrote in the style of the Russian romance, which Brown describes as “a sentimental and soft-centered species [that] closely parallels the Victorian drawing-room ballad.” Song romances were adored for their love-obsessed lyrics and intense emotions by 19th-century Russians, but they have generally not stood the test of time as well as classical German Lieder.

Even in his own day, Tchaikovsky was criticized for twisting his word settings around to fit his musical schemes; he did not hesitate to repeat words and rearrange or even cut verse to accommodate the shape of the music. But Tchaikovsky was unrepentant. “Our musical critics, often losing sight of the fact that the essential in vocal music is truthful reproduction of emotion and state of mind, look primarily for defective accentuations and for all kinds of small declamatory oversights.”

Tchaikovsky was less concerned with the artistic quality of the verse he chose to set than whether it evoked a strong personal response in him. Therefore, though he would set poems by great writers such as Pushkin and Maykov, he also selected lesser verse by amateurs like the young Daniil Ratgauz and Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov. As Christian Wildhagen writes, a striking feature of his songs “is the way in which the composer identifies wholeheartedly with the message of the poems, with the result that many of his songs are personal confessions.”

A Closer Listen

Written in 1884 when he was composing his opera Mazeppa, “Say, when under shady boughs” was originally intended for the bass Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, who created the title role. The words were taken from a comedy by Vladimir Sollogub. Over and over, the singer breathlessly repeats the word skazi—“tell me”— as she seeks to discover the source of the nightingale’s song, the young girl’s agitation. And the answer is always the same: lyubov—“love.” Each of the outer stanzas builds from a calm beginning to an ecstatic declaration, and the rapturous piano postlude carries the emotion higher still.

The words of “Reckless nights” (1886) were written by Aleksey Apukhtin, a close friend of the composer’s. The Tsarina Maria Feodorovna had expressed an interest in Tchaikovsky dedicating a song to her, and he responded with not one but the 12 songs of his Op. 60 romances. Many of these songs revolve around the theme of night. Despite its title, this song’s music is mostly restrained, drenched in nostalgia and regret for a failed love affair.

An early song from 1869, “Why?” sets the great German poet Heinrich Heine in Lev Mei’s translation. Each line is a question beginning with Otchevo (“Why”), and initially each rises higher than the previous one, increasing the urgency. Tchaikovsky sets the singer’s final phrase, too, as a fragile melodic question, hovering softly and without resolution.

From 1887, “Serenade” sets a poem by the Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov, who was Tchaikovsky’s liaison with the Tsarina. This is not the serenade of an ardent lover, but something more innocent and closer to a lullaby. Using a lilting Italianate meter suitable to the serenade genre, Tchaikovsky gives this song his lightest touch.

Tchaikovsky dedicated his “Lullaby” of 1872 to Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife Nadezhda, who was expecting their first child. The charming verse with its folkloric imagery is by Apollon Maykov. This is a lovely, supple strophic song with a delicate piano accompaniment to lull the baby to sleep.

“Was I not a blade of grass in the field?” is based on Ivan Surikov’s adaptation of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. This heartbreaking lament of a young girl forced to marry an old man she does not love draws more on the modal world of Russian folksong than do most of Tchaikovsky’s songs. Searing in its simplicity, it is one of his greatest songs.

Tchaikovsky composed “Amidst gloomy days” in May 1893 as part of his six songs that comprise Op. 73; they were the last completed works before his death that November. The verse is by the 24-year-old amateur Daniil Ratgauz, who had sent them unsolicited to the composer the previous summer. Despite the grim title, this is a rapturous paean to love remembered, though the lovers are now separated. The singer’s rapid, breathless phrases are framed by an ecstatic piano prelude and postlude.

“Amidst the day?” comes from the same set of songs as “Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass?” Tchaikovsky’s friend Apukhtin wrote the poem in praise of soprano Aleksandra Panaeva after hearing her in a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s music. A lengthy and virtuosic prelude and postlude make this impassioned song as much a showpiece for the pianist as for the singer.

—Jan E. Bedell

©  2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation