Russian State Symphonic Choir, Russian Symphony Orchestra
Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 6
Snezhiniki (Snowflakes, Снежинки): Songs (10) from a Child's World, for voice & piano, Op. 47
Missa Sancti Spiritus for Chorus and Organ, Op. 169
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Grechaninov: Symphony No. 1
If the name of Grechaninov remains unfamiliar to music-lovers thirty-nine years after his death in New York at the ripe old age of ninety-two, that is through no lack of quality in his prolific output. His church music continues to be heard in present-day Russia and it is probably in this field that he is best remembered. But as a composer he was unusually versatile: his operas, symphonies, chamber music and songs testify to a mastery of traditional technique and a lyrical gift that, though eclectic, is rooted in the Russian nationalist tradition of Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. As an emigre composer in the West (he worked in Paris from 1925-39 before moving to the USA) he was attracted for a while to French impressionism but - diverging from the path taken by contemporaries abroad, notably Scriabin and Prokofiev - he spurned the modernist revolution of Stravinsky and Schoenberg which seems to have held as little appeal for him as did the post-revolutionary struggle of his native Russia towards Communism. While working in Russia, Grechaninov wrote a significant amount of music for children (solo piano and vocal) and he was successful as a composer of songs, but in the later part of his life he became recognized as one of the twentieth century's outstanding composers of music for church use. A deeply religious yet liberal man, Grechaninov gave offence to the Russian Orthodox Church by composing music for voices with instrumental accompaniment (a forbidden practice). In addition to making settings of the orthodox Roman Catholic liturgy of Mass, Requiem and Motet (a commitment maintained after he took up residence in the USA in 1940) he composed a famous Misso Oecumenico which has been described as 'a kind of theosophical mass, attempting to unite all the creeds, eastern and western' which was first performed by Koussevitsky at Boston in 1944. If the violence of two world wars and the social upheavals of the twentieth century - not least in his own communist Russia -have undermined orthodox religious observance and belief and left their mark on the work and outlook of its greatest creative artists, the religious music of Grechaninov shows a reticence, a gentle serenity of spirit that testifies to an unshaken faith in the indestructability of tradition.
Of Grechaninov's total output of five symphonies, no less than four were composed between 1894 and 1924 in his native Russia before he emigrated to the West. His Third Symphony was produced in Kiev in 1924, and both his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies received performances in his final period in the USA, the fifth in New York under Barbirolli in 1942. His First Symphony dates from the time of his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire with Rimsky-Korsakov in the mid-1890s, and the work bears a dedication to his teacher 'as a token of deep respect and gratitude'. Rimsky-Korsakov himself conducted the first performance of his pupils symphony at a Russian Musical Society concert in 1895. The symphony owes not a little to the example of Borodin (in particular the Borodin of the Second Symphony) and, especially in the delightful third movement scherzo, to Tchaikovsky. (This scherzo was originally in 5/4 time, but had to be recast in 3/4 because the players declared it beyond their capabilities.) The finale, which - as is only to be expected in a minor key symphony - moves in martial triumph into the major mode, suggests that the young composer was not unmindful of Schubert in the finale of his Ninth. The orchestration of his first symphony - as one might expect from a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov - is effective and workmanlike, the symphonic proportions and pacing of the four movements admirable, and even if, after the sturdy first movement sonata-allegro, the slow movement may exceed the permissible bounds of its mood of becalmed lyricism, yet it makes the light winds of the scherzo (which follows without a break) all the more welcome. Here - despite what the composer described as a 'lukewarm' reception - was a symphonic debut to be reckoned with.
Subtitled 'Songs from the World of Childhood' Grechaninov's song-cycle Snowflakes was conceived originally in 1909 for female voice and piano. The orchestral arrangement was published in 1910, presenting the settings in two optional forms as a choral (small female/boys choir) or solo voice work with orchestra. As its subtitle indicates, this collection is unified by the poetic idea of childhood. The ten poems (by various eminent Russian poets of the time) are songs of innocence - little snapshots in sound of the hours and changing seasons, the animal kingdom, the fairy-tale world of elves and gnomes. Grechaninov's treatment shows the same light-handed touch of orchestration and lyrical freshness that will be more familiar to the concert-goer through Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, Ravel's Mother Goose or Mahler's Knaben Wunderhorn settings. In the first song, which gives its name to the collection, the freedom of the snowflakes is depicted as a foil to the pitiful captivity of our human life. The second song is of a procession the night before Easter Sunday - boys and girls are carrying willow branches and candles ('gentle rain, don't blow out our little flame!'). Next comes a child's love for animals in lines addressed to a newborn calf. A walk through the woods in spring is followed by a portrait of Tom Thumb whose gig is drawn by a hairy bee. Moles and molehills are transformed into a child's daydream of the gnome kingdom. Moonlight over the forest - only the moon is awake while all else sleeps. Frost threatens: 'Go and find that magic land that is your proper home'. Snowdrops peep through the birch forest - 'Can Springtime be here?' they ask innocently, - and the work closes with a fairy lullaby.
It may seem a far cry from Snowflakes to the world of the late Missa Sancti Spiritus of 1943, but the simplicity, directness and economy of this setting with organ accompaniment are perhaps not so far removed from a child's world, for it is music touched with the child-like serenity of old age. Remarkable in its way is the composer's use of a traditional, free-wheeling tonal/modal style and syntax that would not have seemed out of place to Mozart and Haydn in their day or, for that matter, to Faure in the twentieth-century composing in the gentle mood of his Requiem (Grechaninov's simple opening Kyrie is a case in point). As in 1943, so today, the repertoire of western church music continues to rely on the enduring values of a language that was shaped acoustically by the architecture of the great buildings for which it was intended. It is based on the interdependence of text and music, on what Bruckner once described as the God-given gift of the common chord, on plainsong-derived chant, counterpoint and tonal harmony, on the contrasts of expression available through solo and chorus, the textures of upper and lower voices in creating effects of light and darkness. In the gentle restraint of its expression, Grechaninov's Mass, written when he was approaching eighty, is a testimony to his faith in the timelessness of this unbroken musico-religious tradition.
-Eric Roseberry (1995)
The first concert performance given by the Moscow Conservatoire Student Choir, later to become the choir of the Russian State Symphonic Cappella, under Valery Polyansky (also a student at the Conservatoire) on 1 December 1971, is considered to be the date of its foundation.
In 1975 the Choir, under Polyansky, won gold and bronze medals at the international competition of polyphonic choirs, 'Guido d'Arezzo' in Italy. This was the first time in the history of the Russian choral tradition that a choir had been awarded a prize in an international competition. Valery Polyansky won a special prize as best conductor of the competition. Polyansky and the Russian State Symphonic Cappella have toured extensively in Russia and abroad, to much critical acclaim.
The Russian State Symphony Orchestra, or Soviet Philharmonic Orchestra as it was originally called, was formed some ten years ago by the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Since then it has made numerous concert tours throughout Russia, Europe, the USA and Japan and has performed alongside many world-famous musicians and conductors including Yehudi Menuhin, Nikolai Petrov, Yuri Bashmet, Vladimir Spivakov and Zubin Mehta.
Since 1992 the orchestra has been conducted by Valery Polyansky and has given innumerable concerts together with the Russian State Symphonic Cappella. In that same year the Orchestra toured the USA, Canada, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Japan and Taiwan.
After graduating from the Moscow State Conservatoire, Valery Polyansky attended a postgraduate course in opera and symphonic conducting, where he studied alongside Gennady Rozhdestvensky.
Mr Polyansky began his professional career conducting at the Moscow Operetta Theatre and at the Bolshoi Theatre. During this time he also worked with all the leading symphony orchestras of Moscow. In 1992 he became Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Russian State Symphonic Cappella and Russian State Symphony Orchestra.
Mr Polyansky has wide connections with other leading Russian and international symphony orchestras; he has conducted the State Chamber Orchestra of Byelorussia, the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra and the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. He was involved with a production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Goteborg Music Theatre in Sweden and in 1993 was principal conductor at the Goteborg Festival.