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Russian Five: The Mighty Handful

The music of five composers from St. Petersburg who sought to create a uniquely Russian musical tradition. We’ll hear compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Borodin, Balakirev, and Mussorgsky, also known as "The Mighty Handful."

 
Program 1

By the middle of the 19th century, operas get an infusion of Slavic soul as Glinka, the "George Washington" of Russian music, dreamt of creating a Russian national opera.  Interestingly enough, many of the great Russian composers were not child prodigies like Chopin and Mozart, but naval officers, chemists and doctors with a latent talent in music.

What did Balakirev, Borodin and Cui have in common?  A love of oriental tones, as can be heard in the following pieces.  

Sheremetiev: “Nine sili nebesniye” (excerpt)
Chorovaya Akademia/Sedov
RCA 68055
2:25
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Glinka: Overture to A Life for the Tsar
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Svetlanov
Mel 10-00166
9:23
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Glinka: A Life for the Tsar, Act IV (excerpt)
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra/Ermler; Nesterenko, b.
Mel 74321 39505 2
11:48
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Glinka, arr. Balakirev: Kamarinskaya (excerpt)
Paley, p.
Ess.a.y 1030/31
7:19
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Balakirev: Islamey
Arrau, p.
Phil 456 706-2
7:46
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Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia
Philharmonia Orch/Simon
Cala 1029
6:13
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Cui: Orientale, Op. 50, No. 9 from Kaleidoscope
Midori, v., McDonald, p.
Sony 52568
1:34
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Cui: “Ici-bas”
Bonynge, p.; Sutherland, s.
Lon 430 006-2
2:06
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Program 2

Bordin's real name would have been Prince Alexander Gedianov, but since father Prince Luka was not married to his morther, he took the name of a serf.  Borodin attended a prestigious military academy and graduated with a degree in science and medicine.  He was a distinguished chemist and doctor until Balakirev, his mentor, convinced him to write a symphony, even offering a helping hand.

A distinguishing characteristic of the Russian Five is the integration of folk tunes into classical music, and the beginning of Borodin's second symphony hints at Eastern influence.  

Balakirev: Symphony No. 2 (excerpts)
BBC Phil/Sinaisky
Chan 9727
:55, 7:42
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Borodin: Symphony No. 1, I
Toronto Symphony/Davis
Sony 62406
13:14
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Borodin: Symphony No. 2, I
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Svetlanov
Mel 10-00154
9:05
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Borodin: String Quartet No. 2, II
Borodin Quartet
Mel 47795 2
4:46
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Borodin: Polovtsian Dances fr. Prince Igor
Kirov Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Gergiev
Phil 442011
11:24
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Bortnyansky: “Retche Gospod Gospodevi moyemu” (excerpt)
Corovaya Akademia/Sedov
RCA 68055
2:17
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Program 3

Born in 1839, Modest Mussorgsky went to the same military academy as Borodin, who once called Mussorgsky "an elegant, piano-playing dilettante.

"Mussorgsky's "The Nursery" was dedicated to Dargomizhsky, who was his teacher.  "Pictures at an Exhibition" are musical vignettes based off Viktor Hartmann's drawings and paintings.  

During this second half of the 1800s, Csar Alexander II pushed for Russia's progressiveness, USA bought Alaska from Russia, and the Russian Five founded a free conservatory with purely Russian music.

Mussorgsky: The Nursery
Leiferkus, bar.; Skigin, p.
Conifer 51229 2
1:54, 14:35, :09
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Dargomizhsky: “The Night is Still”
Sharonova, s.; Yurigin-Klevke, p.
Russian Disc 11 021
1:56
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Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Horowitz, p.
RCA 60526-2
:39, 29:33
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Program 4

USSR Symphony Orchestra opens with Mussorgsky's tone poem, "Dawn on the Moskva River," from the unfinished Khovantschina opera.  The listener can imagine "the red light of dawn over the Red Square, the bells calling the faithful to the church."  His completed opera, Boris Godunov, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, is considered to be Mussorgsky's masterpiece.

 

Mussorgsky: Dawn on the Moskva River fr. Khovantschina
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Svetlanov
Mel 34167 2
6:13
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Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (excerpts)
National Symphony Orchestra/Rostropovich
Erato 45418-2
17:30, 11:04, 16:29
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Beethoven: Quartet for Strings No. 8, Op. 59 No. 2, Razumovsky (excerpt)
Guarneri Quartet
RCA 60457
:28
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Program 5

The youngest of the Five, naval officer Nikolai Rimsy-Korsakov only "tinkered" with music until a fateful meeting with Balakirev at age 17.  Not wasting any time, his newfound teacher ordered Nikolai to compose a symphony right away.  It was completed during a six-year service at sea.  

Orchestral balance stems from Rimsky's "scientific approach" to studying the sound of music.  In one of his experiments, he found that 12 violins were needed to compete with the sound of one trumpet.

The best is saved for last: a beloved and intricate showpiece of musicians to this day, the famous "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Nikolsky: “Lord, you are my enlightenment” (excerpt)
Chorovaya Akademia/Sedov
RCA 68055
:47
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Rimsky-Korsakov: Schehreazade (excerpts)
CSO/Reiner
RCA 7018
2:07, 11:40, 5:39
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Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 2, Antar, I
Philharmonia Orchestra/Butt
ASV 1024
11:52
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Rimsky-Korsakov: Overture fr. The Maid of Pskov
Kirov Theatre Orchestra & Chorus/Gergiev
Phil 446478
6:49
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Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnole, IV & V
LSO/Mackerras; Gaehler, v.
Telarc 80208
8:07
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Rimsky-Korsakov: The Flight of the Bumblebee
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy
Lon 417301-2
1:14
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The Exploring Music streaming website is made possible by Mr. & Mrs. William Gardner Brown and Susan & Richard Kiphart.
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Steffen Demeter
This is simply one of the very best radio programmes in the medium!...The study of the people, the times, and the events that inform the music we otherwise enjoy and even, heaven forbid, take for granted, brings the entire world of the music and the composer to life.
Walther Davies
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Kourtney
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Christine Anderson
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