When we think of late-romantic Russian composers, we think immediately of Tchaikovsky, or of “the mighty handful” (Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakiov, Balakirev and Mussorgsky), we could add Kabalevsky and Glinka, but how many people would even think – or bring up – the brothers Rubenstein?
Yes the brothers, because there are two of them, and – myself – mix them up, because both brothers were renowned pianists, and both were instrumentral in forming Russian musicians and composers at both the main conservatories in Moscow and in St-Petersburg.
Nikolai Rubinstein (1835 –1881) was based out of Moscow, and his claim tro fame (for me, anyway) was his notorious criticism of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. As I recall, Tchaikovsky played it on the piano for Rubenstein one evening after cocktails. One should note that, unlike Tchaikovsky, Rubenstein was a brilliant pianist. Rubenstein, after hearing Tchaikovsky labour through the work, called it “the most vulgar piece of music I have ever heard”.
His brother Anton (1829 –1894), based out of St-Petersburg, added to his credits piano (he was deemed a better pianist than his younger brother), conducting and composing. Rubinstein was a prolific composer, writing no fewer than twenty operas, five piano concertos, six symphonies and a large number of solo piano works along with a substantial output of works for chamber ensemble, two concertos for cello and one for violin, free-standing orchestral works and tone poems (including one entitled Don Quixote).
Today’s OTF focuses on one of these operas: The Demon, an opera in three acts composed in 1871, based on the poem of the same name by Mikhail Lermontov.
Mikhail Vrubel's illustration to Demon (1890).
The poem is set in Lermontov's beloved Caucasus Mountains. It opens with the devil (or demon as he is called here) wandering the earth, hopeless and troubled. He dwells in infinite isolation, his immortality and unlimited power a worthless burden. Then he espies the beautiful Princess Tamara, dancing for her wedding and in the desert of his soul wells an indescribable emotion.
The Demon, acting as a brutal and powerful tyrant, destroys his rival: at his instigation, robbers come to despoil the wedding and kill Tamara's betrothed. The Demon courts Tamara, and Tamara knows fear, yet in him she sees not a demon nor an angel but a tortured soul. Eventually she yields to his embrace, but his kiss is fatal. And though she is taken to Heaven, the Demon is left again "Alone in all the universe, Abandoned, without love or hope!...".
(Translation can be found here: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/m-ler...anslation-rus/)
Lermontov's poem was banned as sacrilegious until 1860. Its popularity and its lurid story made it an excellent candidate for an opera libretto, and Rubinstein himself worked out the scenario from which his librettist produced the final text. As one would expect, Rubenstein and Viskovatov take some artistic licence in their version, for dramatic and operatic effect. The music, when I first heard it, reminded me of Wagner at times, but the opera itself is quite unpretentious, and has a good pace to it.
Synopsis (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Demon_(opera))
Scene 1 (Prologue): During a storm in the Caucasian mountains a chorus of evil spirits call upon the Demon to destroy the beauty of God's creation. The Demon sings of his hatred for the universe and rejects an Angel's plea for him to reconcile with heaven.
Scene 2: Tamara, awaiting her wedding with Prince Sinodal, is by a river with her attendants. The Demon sees her and falls in love with her. He promises her that "all the world will kneel before her" if she returns his love. Tamara is fascinated but frightened by him and returns to the castle.
Scene 3: Prince Sinodal's caravan is making its way to Prince Gudal's court for his marriage to Tamara but is delayed by a landslide. The Demon appears and vows that Prince Sinodal will never see Tamara again. The caravan is attacked by Tatars, and Prince Sinodal is mortally wounded. Before he dies he tells his servant to bring his body to Tamara.
Scene 4: The festivities for the wedding have already begun. A messenger announces that Prince Sinodal's caravan has been delayed. Tamara senses the presence of the Demon and is fearful. When Prince Sinodal's body is brought into the castle, Tamara is overcome by grief, but to her horror, keeps hearing the supernatural voice of the Demon and his promises. She begs her father to let her enter a convent.
Scene 5: The Demon intends to enter the convent where Tamara is now living, believing that his love for her has opened his spirit to goodness. An Angel tries in vain to stop him.
Scene 6: Tamara prays in her convent cell but is constantantly troubled by thoughts of the Demon, who appears to her in her dreams. The Demon now appears in reality, declares his love for her and begs her to love him in return. Tamara tries to resist her attraction to him but fails. The Demon kisses her in triumph. The Angel suddenly appears and shows her the ghost of Prince Sinodal. In horror, Tamara struggles out of the Demon's arms and falls dead.
(Epilogue and Apotheosis): The Angel proclaims that Tamara has been redeemed by her suffering, while the Demon is damned to eternal solitude. The Demon curses his fate. In the final Apotheosis Tamara's soul is carried to Heaven accompanied by angels.
Anton RUBENSTEIN (1829 –1894)
The Demon (1871)
Opera in one prolog and three acts based on the poem by Mikhail Lermontov
(Libretto by Pavel Viskovatov)
CAST (Main Characters)
Alexei Ivanov (Demon)
Sergey Krassovsky (Prince Gudal),
Tatiana Talakhadze (Tamara, his daughter)
Ivan Kozlovsky (Prince Sinodal, Tamara's betrothed)
Elena Gribova (Angel)
Bolshoi Theatre Ocrchestra and Chorus
Alexandre Melik-Pacheyev, conducting
(Vintage performance from 1950: http://www.mqcd-musique-classique.co...ead.php?t=6387)
May 25th, 2012, "I Think You Will Love This Music Too" will be adding a new montage "Brautigam & Beethoven" to its Pod-O-Matic Podcast. Read our English and French commentaries May 25th on the ITYWLTMT Blogspot blog.