Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony #1 and Symphony #2

"The works of Rimsky-Korsakov music may be conveniently divided into two groups: the overplayed and the unknown."
--Richard Taruskin, author, The Oxford History of Western Music (6 Volume Set)

After tackling one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most "overplayed" works last week, I have to share the unfortunate truth that his three stunning symphonies tend to fall into the "unknown" category for most people.

This post will discuss R-K' s First and Second Symphonies, and in the near future we'll tackle the second disc of this two-CD set, which includes his Third Symphony as well as two of his best known works: the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol.
Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

3 Symphonies; Capriccio espagnol; Russian Easter Overture
Deutsche Grammophon, 1988

Some interesting trivia on Rimsky-Korsakov:
1) As a member of the Russian navy, he was stationed on a Russian frigate that did tours in the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay during the American Civil War.

2) He taught some of Russia's most famous composers, including Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Glazunov and Igor Stravinsky.

3) He had synesthesia, a condition in which the mind cross-wires sensory perceptions. Rimsky-Korsakov apparently saw colors when he heard certain chords. And I thought you had to drop acid to experience this.

Listener notes on the First and Second Symphonies:
1) Does the opening chord of the First Symphony sound at all familiar? Yep, practically identical to the first chord of Scheherazade. Other than that, these two pieces couldn't be more different.

2) If Symphony #1 doesn't grab you at first, give it time and a few more tries. I found that this symphony became more compelling and much more interesting to me after a three or four close listens.

3) Listen for the soft, rising harp arpeggios at the very end of the second movement of Symphony #1. If you have a copy of the Neeme Jarvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra recording, you might cringe. That harp is badly out of tune!

4) Doesn't the opening minute or two of the Second Symphony sound like it could be the soundtrack to a 1940s-era film noir movie?

5) Note that R-K's Symphony #2 has an idee fixe that appears and reappears throughout the four movements, just like Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. In R-K's case the idee fixe represents Antar, the protagonist of his story.

6) Note that both Symphony #1 (at about 26 minutes) and #2 (at about 32 minutes) are relatively brief works, and the individual movements (with one exception) are a reasonably bite-sized five to eight minutes long. Perfect for any of you who might be a bit intimidated by the potential time commitment involved in learning the great classical musical works.

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