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Léon Bakst: The Firebird (1910)
07 Sep 2008

Prom 68 — Russian Fairy Tales from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky

Kashchey is a gnarled old ogre who imprisons a beautiful young princess in his gloomy underworld. It’s classic psychodrama. Kashchey has supernatural powers, so how can the Princess be saved ?

Prom 68 — Rimsky-Korsakov Kashchey the Immortal; Stravinsky The Firebird

Vyacheslav Voynarovsky (Kashchey), Tatiana Monogarova (Princess), Pavel Baransky (Ivan Korolevich), Elena Manistina (Kashcheyevna), Mikhail Petrenko (Storm Knight). BBC Singers. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vladimir Jurowski (cond.)
5 September 2008, London Albert Hall, London.


This Prom paired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey The Immortal with Stravinsky’s The Firebird, contrasting two resolutions to the fairy tale that’s captured Russian imaginations for centuries.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s short opera focuses on relationships. Kashchey is immortal, but he has a daughter, Kashcheyevna, who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold and conniving as he is but she falls in love with the Prince. The Storm Knight brings all four of them together, and the Princess’s love triumphs. Kashcheyevna weeps, and her tears break the spell that makes Kashchey invincible. Love conquers all, yet again. It’s simple but affords opportunities for lushly Romantic musical effects. Music as pictorial as this illustrates so well that meaning can be visualised even if you don’t speak Russian. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight is defined by wild ostinatos, even though he’s more of a plot device than a character. Some of the most interesting music, though, surrounds Kashcheyevna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry, or even Brünnhilde. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathise. While the other roles verge on stereotype, Kashcheyevna is more complex, and Manistina impressed.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird, written a mere four years after Kashchey The Immortal, inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. The ballet evolves from the music rather than the other way round. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal, as an orchestral masterpiece. Vladimir Jurowski is still only in his mid 30’s but has established a reputation for intelligence and sensitivity. Watching him conduct this piece was instructive : he moves with the grace off someone who understands how this music connects to dance. His gestures were understated, yet elegant, his left hand fluttering to restrain the sweep of the strings and keep the tone transparent. This pinpointed how Stravinky wrote cues for physical movement into the music itself. Circular woodwind figures translate into shapes of curved arms, flurries of pizzicato into rapid en pointe. Dancers must hear levels in this music closed to the rest of us, but Jurowski’s intuitive approach helps us appreciate its depths.

The Firebird is a magical figure which materialises out of the air, leading te Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Jurowski gets great refinement from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he’s forged a very close relationship in only a year of being their Chief Conductor. The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. The rest of the orchestra plays barely above the point of audibility, until the flute enters carrying the horn’s melody. Later there’s more magic, when the double basses and cellos are plucked quietly, building up towards the crescendos which sound for all the world like the joyous tolling of great bells. In the finale, trombones and trumpets hail the moment of liberation. The trumpeters stand upright, so their music soars above the orchestra, projected into the auditorium with superb, dramatic effect.

Anne Ozorio

Viktor_Vasnetsov_Kashchey_t.pngKashchey the Immortal by Viktor Vasnetsov

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