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Friday, November 30, 2018

Russian Carnival

From the Vault Dept.: One of a series of liner notes I wrote for the sadly defunct Dorian Recordings label, although I swear my involvement with the concern had nothing to do with their downfall. This was for a CD of works by Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, and Anthony DiLorenzo, lovingly described below – and with notes on the DiLorenzo piece by Tony himself..


BACK IN THE LATE ’60s, after conducting a rip-snorting performance of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” conductor Leopold Stokowski turned to the applauding Carnegie Hall audience and shouted, “Wonderful Russian music!” At which the audience stood and cheered.

In the late ’70s, while airing a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a radio announcer in Connecticut got a phone call from an angry listener who berated him for playing commie music – the same piece that has reduced an audience to tears with its trenchantly mournful slow movement.

Russian music has excited similar passions for centuries, politics aside. With a thousand-year-old history behind it that includes an Orthodox singing traditon, strong Byzantine and (in the 18th century) Italian influences, not to mention a varied and rhythmic folksong heritage. It’s well known that Stravinsky’s sensual “Rite of Spring” inspired rioting at its 1913 Paris premiere, but even the relatively staid Tchaikovsky inspired howls of nervous derision at what was then judged to be the barbaric nature of his music.

This recording collects music by some of the best-known Russian composers of the 19th and 20th centuries – and adds a new work by an American composer strongly influenced by the Russians.

EACH TIME recording technology has changed, it’s been necessary to accommodate “Pictures at an Exhibition” differently. In the days of 78s, when not more than four and a half minutes could be crammed on each shellac side, “Pictures” occupied an album of five or six records. Or fewer if, like conductor Artur Rodzinski, you omitted a few sections. Running in the neighborhood of 30 minutes, the piece spread nicely over two sides of early LPs, but as that technology improved the playing capacity increased and companion pieces were required.

Mussorgsky’s own “Night on Bald Mountain” was an early favorite (Golschmann, Ormandy, Sargent), as was Rimsky-Korsakoff’s rousing “Capriccio Espagnole” (Bernstein). Because the orchestration was likely to be Ravel’s, “Bolero” showed up on a Karajan recording, “Daphnis” on Toscanini’s, with music by Debussy on LPs by Maazel and Stokowski – the latter, of course, featuring Stokowski’s own orchestration.

LPs ultimately grew to accommodate 30 minutes per side, allowing the felicitous pairing of the solo piano and orchestral versions of the piece (Richter/Szell, Ashkenazy/Mehta). Then the CD appeared, holding upwards of 80 minutes, allowing not only for the showpiece to benefit from superior recording techniques and sound reproduction, but also getting those older recordings back in print.

Ashkenazy’s piano performance is still paired with an orchestral version, but with Ashkenazy on the podium. Koussevitzky’s 1930 recording is back and William Kapell’s long-bootlegged 1953 piano recital version has a legit CD home.

ONLY RECENTLY HAVE OTHER ARRANGEMENTS of the piece appeared on disc. There are versions for two and three guitars, organ (Dorian boasts a spectacular performance by Jean Guillou), piano trio, brass quintet, brass and organ, and even the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. But this new arrangement for the thirteen players in the Burning River Brass takes a fresh look at the music even as it takes advantage of the sonic possibilities of the hall (the Troy Music Hall, an old-fashioned, wood-lined space that has come into its own in the age of digital recordings) and a technology that presents this music more crisply and with greater dynamic range than ever before.

The recording was planned with “Pictures” as its centerpiece; once that was in place and Mike Allen began writing the arrangement, the rest of the program was chosen. Russian showpieces were favored, although an original piece was commissioned from trumpet player Anthony DiLorenzo, whose brilliant compositions have graced not only Burning River Brass’s previous Dorian CD, “Of Knights and Castles,” but also a series of CDs by brass ensemble Proteus 7, also issued by Dorian. As Tony describes in his notes below, “A Little Russian Circus” portrays the titular performance while capturing the feel of the angular rhythms and dramatic contrasts heard in the other works on this disc.

The two Prokofiev selections also have theatrical roots, although in this case one (“March”) comes from opera, the other from ballet. Both were arranged by percussionist Feza Zweifel, whose biggest challenge was in capturing the rapid runs played by the strings in the “March” – and these he turned into trombone glissandos.

Shostakovich's “Concertino” is somewhat obscure, a two-piano work described below that Mike Allen discovered, ironically, in another brass arrangement. He went back to the original score to fashion a fresh arrangement for his own brass ensemble, which he then fleshed out for the larger Burning River Brass ensemble.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky wrote a colossal opera (Boris Godunov), five-dozen wonderful songs, and not much else. More accurately, he started many pieces, and the few he finished typically suffered editorial interference when they were published. At first it seems to have been sheer indolence that curbed his output; eventually, he paid more attention to drinking than to music, and that’s what did him in him at the age of 42.

He was somewhat sobered by the death of his friend Victor Hartmann, an architect and painter who died in 1873 at the age of 39. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life – and creatures like Hartmann must die!” exclaimed Mussorgsky in a letter to a friend. “One must be a rascal to revel in the thought that he can create no more.”

A huge selection of Hartmann’s creations – over 400 watercolors, drawings, and jewelry designs – was exhibited in tribute at the St. Petersburg Academy of the Arts. Mussorgsky was so moved by the display that he composed a piano suite in tribute, but the piece wasn’t published until five years after the composer’s own death.

It quickly attracted arrangers, some of them obscure enough even to resist the notice of Grove’s Dictionary of Music. Two noted conductors, Sir Henry Wood and Leopold Stokowski, came up with orchestral versions, although the most-played arrangement is by Maurice Ravel. The beauty of Ravel’s work is in its utterly unforced nature. Completely true to the piano original, it nevertheless fashions a lovely canvas of appropriate pomp and nuance in the orchestral language that was uniquely Ravel’s own.

This was, of course, the challenge to meet in re-casting the work for four trumpets, two horns, four trombones, tuba, and two percussionists. Allen worked from the piano original, trying to keep away from the pervasive Ravel version. For color, he tried to keep away from using all of the instrumental forces all of the time, although the “Great Gate at Kiev,” with its pages of ten-fingered hammering, was given similar power from the brass.

[1] Promenade

Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, one of Mussorgsky’s close friends, described it thus: “The composer portrays himself walking, now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened, he thinks in sadness of his dead friend . . . ” The composer gave himself a lopsided gait by writing the theme in alternating measures of 5/4 and 6/4 time, but the picture of a preoccupied observer is skillfully drawn.

[2] The Gnome

Hartmann’s drawing of a misshapen figure was a prototype for a Christmas tree ornament of a carved nutcracker. Low brass begin a musical portrait that soon picks up a stately though syncopated theme.

[3] Promenade

There’s a more reverential sense to the viewer’s walk now (note the hymnlike feel of the accompaniment).

[4] The Old Castle

Subtitled il vecchio castello, this probably was an Italian edifice, real or imagined; the portrait includes the figure of a troubadour singing in the foreground.

[5] Promenade

A short, dignified stroll to a rather carefree picture.

[6] Tuileries

Mussorgsky’s subtitle was “Dispute of the Children after Play,” and you can hear the well-known “nyah-nyah” theme woven in. The picture shows a famous Parisian park peopled by kids and their nursemaids.

[7] Bydlo

The title is Polish for “cattle,” and Hartmann’s painting, rendered on location during the artist’s travels, depicts a large-wheeled peasant wagon hitched to a team of oxen. In Mussorgsky’s treatment, the cart draws near in a crescendo of lumbering movement, then slowly moves off again.

[8] Promenade

Another thoughtful stroll, interrupted by a glance at the next picture.

[9] Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells

In Hartmann’s costume sketches for the ballet Trilby, the chicks were children, one of whom was garbed in a large eggshell. The dance depicted in the music has the feel of a wild game of leapfrog.

[10] Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle

The names for the Polish Jews limned in this portrait were invented by Stassov; Mussorgsky termed them “Two Jews; one rich, the other poor.” This actually was based on two Hartmann pictures given to the composer, who loaned them to the memorial exhibition, after which they disappeared. There’s a vaudeville feel to the musical conversation between the two characters, one of them pompous, the other whiny and verbose. Another Promenade follows in the piano score, but, thanks to Ravel’s influence, it’s usually omitted.

[11] The Marketplace at Limoges

A group of women, shoppers all, are in a lively conversation in Hartmann’s picture, drawn at Limoges. Mussorgsky added the following dialogue in his original score: “Great news! M. de Puissangeot has just recovered his cow, Fugitive. But the good crones of Limoges don’t all agree about this, because Mme. De Remboursac just got a beautiful new set of teeth, while M. de Panta-Pantaleon’s nose, which gets in the way, is still the color of a peony.”

[12] Catacombs, Roman Tombs

The Paris catacombs (Mussorgsky’s “Roman” designation notwithstanding), drawn to include a self-portrait in which the artist and a fellow architect explore the gloomy space behind a lamp-toting guide.

[13] Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language)

It’s a somber variation on the Promenade theme, but the composer wrote that “the creative soul of the dead Hartmann leads me to the skulls, invokes them, the skulls shine softly.”

[14] The Hut on Fowls’ Legs

Baba-Yaga is a witch of Russian folklore who eats a paste of ground human bones. Hartmann’s drawing was a whimsical picture of a clock in the shape of Baba-Yaga’s hut, but Mussorgsky got more into the guts of the legend, giving us a musical picture of the witch flying around on her bone-grinding mortar.

[15] The Great Gate of Kiev

A competition was held to select the best design for a gateway to be built in Kiev to honor the failed assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1866. Hartmann’s entry showed a Moorish-looking structure topped with a cupola in the shape of an old Russian battle helmet, with a small crowd of people admiring the gate that dwarfs them. The movement triumphantly incorporates the Promenade theme into the stirring finale.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
“The Evil God and Dance of the Pagan Monsters” from the Scythian Suite

On the strength of hearing the young Prokofiev play his second piano concerto, dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned the composer to write a ballet score. Originally intended to be based on a Russian fairy tale, it developed into a story about a Scythian lass (Ala) who’s rescued by the heroic Lolly from an evil god. Diaghilev, ever given to quick judgments, found the ballet score too boring and commissioned another. Prokofiev, ever economical, fashioned sections of Ala and Lolly into the four-movement Scythian Suite, featuring some of Prokofiev’s more plangent themes and orchestral colors. “The Evil God and Dance of the Pagan Monsters” is the suite’s second movement, an orgiastic convocation of the enemies of the sun.

“March” from The Love for Three Oranges

As an opera, The Love for Three Oranges is another fantastic folk-like tale. Written in 1919 for the Chicago Lyric Opera, it wasn’t produced until the end of 1921, where it wasn’t a success. Lack of success followed in New York and cities in Russia, Germany, and France, although it has now entered the repertory of many an opera company – the New York City Opera has a production with delightful scenery by Maurice Sendak. As an except, the “March” (Entrance of the Prince) has been a radio theme (“The FBI”) and concert encore in a variety of successful transcriptions.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Concertino in A Minor, Op. 94

Following the death in1953 of Stalin, Shostakovich was able to speak and write with much more freedom than earlier had been possible, even going so far as to proclaim that his belief that “the artist in Russia has more freedom than the artist in the West.” Still, he continued for a while to adhere to a style of musical accessibility that the Stalin regime had imposed. The Concertino for
Two Pianos was written in 1954, during a time when he and his teenaged son, Maxim, were amusing themselves by playing four-hand arrangements of works by Haydn – an influence that also would be felt in the Piano Concerto No. 2.

Anthony DiLorenzo (1967- )
A Little Russian Circus
(Notes by the composer)

It is early 19th century Russia — a small band of misfits travels the countryside entertaining Czars and Czarinas in their royal palaces. As they continually dazzle their audiences with feats of splendor and amazing acrobatic routines, the performers become known through all of Russia. With their reputation spreading so swiftly, it becomes time to expand the exhibition and head for the countryside to perform for the masses.

Vast audiences of farmers, craftsmen, merchants, women, and children look forward to the circus, which lifts them out of the dreariness of their everyday lives. Each village takes part in the production by creating their own unique structure to provide for the all of the performers and animals. With such an elaborate array of animals, wires, nets, poles and fire, accidents are bound to happen. This is where my tale begins.

A Little Russian Circus is set in four movements, each portraying a part of the performance. “Tent of Terror” begins with a blast of trombones setting the stage as the lions, tigers, and bears (Oh My!) charge into the tent. The audience gasps and grips the edge of their seats, unsure if they should flee the apparent stampede. Soon to follow are elephants, rhinos, and, of course, what circus would be complete without clowns. The audience’s terror soon turns to amazement as they are shown a display the likes of which they have never seen.

“Nikolai – the Flying Bear” is considered to be the finest act in the circus. Of course, the bear doesn’t really fly; he merely swings from trapeze to trapeze.  If the audience could see a little better, they might notice that the bear is not a bear, rather “Nikolai” is actually two dwarfs stuffed into a bear costume! Fortunately, the ruse is complete and the audience is never the wiser. As “Nikolai” prepares for his triple leap, the crowd grits their teeth in anticipation.

Sitting center stage, a small, lonely clown plays an accordion no bigger than eight inches. Covered in a soft bluish light, “The Clown” plays a beautiful soaring melody, only to be interrupted by a bizarre cast of characters in all shapes, sizes, and colors. These strange clowns dance and tumble all about, riding unicycles, bicycles, tricycles, and all types of wildly painted wagons as their offbeat music plays. As these quirky clowns finally exit, the music fades and our small clown is left alone and sighs to himself.

“Rings of Fire” begins with an eruption of sound representing exploding balls of fire and light as massive rings placed all over the arena are set ablaze. As the lions and tigers reappear and begin to leap through the rings, the audience cheers madly. The tension builds to an extreme  as one of the lions collides with a ring and knocks it over. The rest of the rings begin to topple like dominoes and set off a chain reaction as the fire spreads from pole to pole and starts to climb the walls of the tent. The room quickly becomes an inferno and the audience, performers and animals flee the impending disaster!

Russian Carnival
Burning River Brass
Dorian Recordings XCD-90293

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