Rachmaninov at the premiere of The Miserly Knight, 11 January 1906, with I. Grizunov (the Duke), G. Baklanov (the Baron) and A. Bonachich (Albert)
How glad I am Vladimir Jurowski still believes in the most haunting of Rachmaninov's three operas, The Miserly Knight, its text adapted practically word for word from Pushkin's magnificent 'little tragedy' (Skupoi Ritsar in the Russian - 'covetous' may hit the mark even better than 'miserly', especially since, as I only learnt a couple of days ago, Pushkin intended seven plays for each of the deadly sins, though he only reached four. For more on the origin of this frontispiece, see further down).
Nearly a decade on from his Glyndebourne championship, Jurowski (pictured below by Chris Christodoulou) conducted an orchestrally unsurpassable performance of The Miserly Knight in Wednesday night's London Philharmonic Orchestra programme, a fascinating double bill about gold and greed with substantial excerpts from Wagner's Das Rheingold in the first half. When he recently decided to join the pre-performance talk originally to have been given by director Annabel Arden alone, I was privileged to be asked to chair the chat. That meant handing over the review to my Arts Desk colleague Matthew Wright; he got it, I think.
Talk and performance were absolutely fascinating and challenging. VJ never views things from a conventional angle, and the way he manipulates the English language to express complicated thoughts simply is a marvel. Besides, who else would have pulled off this programme? The Rheingold sequence was infinitely more satisfying than Dudamel's disastrously paced and ineptly snippeted 'Entry of the Gods into Valhalla' the other week. It had been advertised as orchestral music only, but then Jurowski realised there wasn't enough to stand by itself. He found out that Sergey Leiferkus, his Baron, towering protagonist of The Miserly Knight, had sung Alberich and it all flowed from there. Thus we got the whole of the introduction, first scene and interlude up to the Valhalla theme, with the Rhinemaidens, in Arden's semi-staging, undulating above and below the front row of choir stalls. The Woglinde, recent Guildhall graduate Natalya Romaniw, took a minute to settle, but what a voice this is - I hear a potential Sieglinde in there.
Jurowski made the score gleam and undulate, as if we were in a finer acoustic that the RFH's (when I returned in the talk to his question of doing a whole Ring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which he'd brought up at an earlier meeting, he said they'd need a whole new construction to house it). There was perhaps a touch too much care for the descent to and ascent from Nibelheim, and the patching felt a bit conspicuous from here up to the final sequence, but the anvils - 8, said the programme; 18, said VJ; 10 came on for a bow - resonated marvellously. Nor were the gods very Wagnerian-divine, but it was good to have the Rhinemaidens at the back rather than offstage, chilling the blood. And yes, we got six harps.
The Rachmaninov was, by contrast, impassioned, absolutely sure in every gesture - having played for the Glyndebourne 2004 production, the LPO still seems to have the music in its blood - and enshrined the most magnificent monologue in the operatic world from a still-untiring Leiferkus (there was a point a couple of years ago where I thought the voice was worn out, but little sign of that here). Annabel's finest touch was to find, unforced, a second role for the singer-actresses portraying Wagner's Rhinemaidens, as young Norns hovering above the Baron - especially valid since, as she pointed out, Russian abstractions like Death and Fate are feminine. The three made it work chillingly well.
We also spoke of how Rachmaninov takes a leaf out of Wagner in his slow-burn crescendos. There are two, the biggest, which seems to go on for ever before imploding, when the Baron, Bluebeard-like, lights candles and opens his six jewel-caskets. But the one with the more poetry to go with it is perhaps the more haunting in both music and text. Thus James E Falen's translation, preserving the Shakespearean iambic pentameters of Pushkin's original:
Ah yes! If all the tears, the blood and sweat
That men have shed for such a hoard as this
Should suddenly gush forth from out the earth,
There'd be a second flood - and I'd be drowned
Inside my trusty vaults.
As luck would have it, the fourth instalment of the Glyndebourne film downloaded to YouTube - I don't know for how long (and I'd urge you to buy the DVD, which is beautifully presented) - starts at exactly this point. So you can hear how Rachmaninov develops the extraordinary four-note ostinato of the third movement from his Suite No. 1 for two pianos, 'Tears' ('Slyozi'). This in turn derives from the bells of Novgorod, which haunted Rachmaninov from childhood. So that comes first here in the partnership of Nikolay Lugansky and Vadim Rudenko - my CD benchmark is Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch - and is followed by Leiferkus in the middle of Scene 2. Arden's production has the masterstroke of an aerialist, Matilda Leyser (now married to Phelim McDermott, Annabel told me), who scared the life out of me with her big eyes, as the fateful spirit of avarice.
Pushkin's monologue is great in itself: I've determined to learn it in Russian, as I started to learn Pimen's speech from Boris Godunov; let's see if I can get further this time (Russians always appreciate you quoting some Pushkin - J can impress with 'Shto dyen gryadushy mne gotovit' since Tchaikovsky set Lensky's lines very faithfully). I'd also like to do my own translation and I've just discovered these illustrations for the Little Tragedies by a talented young artist, Ievgen Kharuk - very much in the tradition of Russian book illustration (though Ievgen is from Kiev, more power to his pen). Note the key motif from The Miserly Knight on the cover for all four works.
Look at more of his work here. It should, of course, be published. On which note, it saddens but doesn't surprise me to learn of the latest philistinism to dog the better part of Putin's Russia: the great publications known as 'thick' journals, a glory of the Russian intelligentsia even in Soviet times, are in danger of extinction and the dangerous fraud who's supposed to be the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky (the one who said Tchaikovsky wasn't gay - see the footnote here - and who went on to even greater glories), won't lift a finger to help.
In the meantime, the staff of Moskva, the journal which first published Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, are ploughing on this month and the next unsalaried to try and save their great institution. The Interpreter has its rigorous finger on the pulse of this as of so much else. I know, pace David Damant's comment to a recent post, that it's partial as an instrument of opposition, but it does its best to provide chapter and verse against the scandalously nebulous propaganda pouring out of Russia at the moment.
A final, not unconnected, point: a far more incriminating photo than the above from 2004, along with detailed facts, here point to why there should be an immediate end to Anna Netrebko's hit-and-miss career in the west. If she was naive to think that giving money to a Donetsk opera and theatre company to carry on had nothing to do with separatist propaganda, then she should definitely have stopped when they asked her to hold the flag. Simple equation: if you pay to see Anna Netrebko, you're funding the daily murder of civilians in a war within Ukraine's legal borders - no doubt by both sides - which the Ukrainians did nothing to start. And as a general principle, applicable to Gergiev too, the author of the article, Julia Khodor Beloborodov of Arts Against Aggression, is surely right:
Artists and their art can stand apart from politics. However, artists who use their artistic reputations to further a political cause cannot then be allowed to hide behind that reputation and claim to not be political actors.
Anyway, Netrebko's Iolanta and Four Last Songs discs are poor. That may be beside the point, but at least I wrote about those before I knew anything about this.