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The Legend of the invisible city of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya

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‘The Mighty Handful’ were ever suspicious of the conservatoire system, but also of the status quo of European musical life at the time, and not least the all-pervasive Richard Wagner. The year after Rimsky-Korsakov completed Scheherazade, he was able to hear a work which had been absorbing him for some time—Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The great Wagnerian Carl Muck conducted the cycle in St Petersburg during the 1888–89 operatic season and Rimsky-Korsakov sat through the rehearsals and saw his view of music-drama radically altered. From the early 1890s until his death in 1908 he produced a dozen operas which range from the historical epic, through legend, fairytale and folk treatments to fascinating experiments in the genre. His masterful penultimate opera, The Legend of the invisible city of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya fits into almost all of these categories at some point or other.

The rather nonsensical plot centres on the myth of the miracle which rescued the city of Great Kitezh from invasion by the Mongol hordes, whereby the city is rescued by being submerged in great fountains of water, brought about through the fervent belief of its non-violent population, divine intervention and the restorative power of nature. The music recalls Wagner at points, Rimsky-Korsakov summoning up memories of the ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried in the opera’s Prelude, the ‘Paean to the wilderness’, a depiction of the woodland and its multifarious attractions and dangers. The ‘Wedding procession and Tartar invasion’ is no less evocative of nuptial bliss, darkened by the clouds of the incoming invasion, while the ‘Battle of Kershenets’ fizzes with the promise of battle, building up into a finale of titanic proportions, presaging the battle march in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Hints of Wagner aside, Rimsky-Korsakov’s super-sophisticated ear for tone-colour and effect are all his own invention. The symphonic description of the dense forest, its flora, fauna and climate recalls Rachmaninov’s recollection of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral wizardry:

When there is a snowstorm, the flakes seem to dance and drift from the woodwinds and the soundholes of the violins; when the sun is high all instruments shine with an almost fiery glare; when there is water the waves ripple and splash audibly through the orchestra, and this effect is not achieved by the comparatively cheap means of a harp glissando; the sound is cool and glassy when he describes a calm winter’s night with a glittering starlit sky. He was a great master of orchestral sound painting…who handled the secrets of the orchestra in so masterly a fashion, down to the smallest detail[.]

from notes by M Ross © 2013


Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade & The invisible city of Kitezh
SIGCD320Download only


Excerpt No 1: Paean to the wilderness
Excerpt No 2: Wedding procession and Tartar invasion
Excerpt No 3: Battle of Kershenets

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