FEATURED SELECTION: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov/Orchestral Works
The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988
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David M. Greene
Among the Russian composers of the last century, Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov is a towering figure. He taught most of the next generation among his countrymen. He saw to it that the music of his contemporaries became known. In one way or another his impact was felt in almost every area of Russian musical life. He blazed at least one important path to 20th-century "modernism." Above all, he came to be regarded as the man who knew best how to write for the full-fledged symphony orchestra.
After 1890, his most productive period, Rimsky thought of himself as an opera composer. Before that he was, as he saw it, learning his metier, despite the laurels awarded him for his efforts. Much of his knowledge of theory and harmony was gained when he found himself having to teach them at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, managing somehow to keep a jump ahead of his students. Even in orchestration, his dependence on outmoded manuals left him ignorant for years of technological advances in instruments, some of which he caught up with when he took seriously the chief inspectorship of navy bands offered him as a synecure. Modest to a fault, he distrusted such adulation and described himself for a long time as "an officer-dilettante.''
All the works on this record appeared before the great outburst of 1890-1908. The earliest and least-known is Sadko, op. 5, based on the same folktale as the later opera, for which it supplied some musical themes. Rimsky wrote it in 1867, but twice overhauled it, the second time in 1892. May Night, whose overture Batiz offers here, was Rimsky's second complete opera, based on a fantastic tale by Gogol, and premiered in 1880. The other two works are, as noted, among Rimsky's most popular compositions.